By Lauren Young
As Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-DeWitt, prepares for his departure from the senate, he has become more vocal against a community grid to replace aging Interstate 81 infrastructure. DeFrancisco discussed his opposition to the project by the State Department of Transportation (DOT) during an Oct. 8 DeWitt Town Board meeting, stating how the community grid, which would remove all viaducts, would result in a “community gridlock,” along with other environmental and economic concerns.
DeFrancisco, who has been a resident of DeWitt for just over a year, said he first got involved with this project about seven years ago.
“It became very apparent that there was a movement to create a community grid, which basically takes down the viaducts, and everybody just tries to get through the city, or around the city, in a different way,” said DeFrancisco. “If you’re going to have a damn community grid, you have to have some thoroughfare through the city, period.”
This can be accomplished by a tunnel or depressed highway, for example, he said. Not allowing traffic north and south on the interstate will create a “community gridlock,” he said.
The community-grid only option, said DeFrancisco, would divert thousands of cars onto I-481 through DeWitt daily, creating heavy traffic on I-481 and local roads. Instead, he advocated for a hybrid tunnel/community grid solution that would maintain a high-speed route into and through the City of Syracuse, keeping traffic flowing along the existing north-south I-81 route.
However, Defrancisco said this issue has fallen upon “deaf ears.”
“If you’ve read the paper anytime during the last seven years, they always frame the issue as the community grid or a tunnel, and it’s so unfair — it’s unbelievable,” he said.
DeFrancisco said CenterState CEO, a business leadership and economic development organization, advocates for the community grid, which “makes no sense,” he said.
“It makes no sense for a business community to want to do this,” said DeFrancisco.
“When you see a business owner, ask them what they think about it,” he said. “If you don’t like it, tell your leadership — they’re selling you down the road, don’t just go along and get along, but that’s basically what’s happened up to this point in time.”
Fast-forward to 2040
At the end of his introduction, DeFrancisco read a satirical letter to the editor he wrote, about eight minutes long, which he said has gone ignored by local newspapers. The last newspaper he sent his piece to asked him to cut it down because there was not enough room in the paper, to which the senator questioned.
“I don’t know what they save their space for, but if it’s some proposal or some point that’s favorable to them, they’ll put anything in, as long as it provides their point,” he said. After he refused to cut down his piece, the letter was not printed in the paper — so he chose to read it aloud that night.
The satirical piece takes place on March 1, 2040, 10 years after the demolition of Route 81 viaducts and construction of the community grid. DeFrancisco described how traffic increased and 30 percent of tenants at an apartment complex have respiratory problems caused by the emissions produced from the community grid. According to a doctor in his story, he described “inordinate delays transporting patients to the hospital,” and how “ever since the viaducts went down, traffic has been horrendous.”
Almond Street, where 14 traffic lights are planned, becomes a four-way highway when the viaducts are removed, said DeFrancisco, but the design is insufficient to accommodate for its population.
Economic development in Central New York plummets, he said, describing how it loses business, like four manufacturers and two product distribution firms, and the state is left with a $35 billion deficit in its city budget.
Town Supervisor Ed Michalenko said the town majority has also “taken a stance” against the conversion of I-481 into Route 81.
“The senator has been a tremendous advocate on our behalf and has worked diligently on this issue,” he said. But with DeFrancisco stepping down, Michalenko said the town fears there may be “some slippage on this issue.”
“It’s going to be a disaster”
Resident Rick Coughlin, who has sat on the Town of DeWitt Board of Assessment Review for 15 years, said he and his wife Mary have a “great deal of trepidations to the effects of the highway on the value of our home, the quality of our life, quality of our environment, our schools, everything.”
“I’m afraid of some sort of collateral damage to our property values in the town that might result, but collateral damage to DeWitt doesn’t seem to be an issue to decision-makers — we’re just going to have to deal with it,” said Coughlin.
As an appraiser, Coughlin said that Syracuse is “undergoing a renaissance downtown, unlike we’ve seen in 50 years … The highway infrastructure as it presently exists is contributing to that success,” he said.
Coughlin asked about the possibility of a noise abatement wall, to which DeFrancisco said CenterState CEO was working on such mitigations, but DeFrancisco preferred to erase that option entirely until the project is a done deal.
Michalenko chimed in, adding that the board’s request of mitigation would allude to their acceptance of the project, which is not the case. “That’s basically conceding that it’s acceptable for them to convert 481 into 81, so our current position is that it’s not acceptable,” he said. Until the deal is finalized, he said the board will discuss mitigations then.
DeFrancisco said letters opposing the community grid have been sent to the Gov. Andrew Cuomo, signed by many Democrat and Republican delegates.
“When do you ever see a delegation of Republicans, Democrats [of the] assembly, senate say the same thing?” he said.
Michalenko said that, despite his opposition to the community grid, CenterState CEO and the city have put forth “some logical arguments,” like creating “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars’ worth of tax revenue gained.”
DeFrancisco said his guess is that the community grid will be approved and will try to “mitigate this and mitigate that, but it’s going to be a disaster.”
“The fact of the matter is that it doesn’t bring anybody together, and it brings pollution more into the city,” said DeFrancisco.
The next DeWitt Town Board meeting will be held at 7 p.m. on Oct. 22 at the DeWitt Town Hall on 5400 Butternut Drive.