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I-81 was built in Central New York during the 1950s and 1960s for two main reasons: to carry through traffic between Pennsylvania and Canada and to bring local traffic in and out of Syracuse. The highway was the product of a vigorous federal road-building program that included the construction of many miles of interstate highways in every state across the country.

The idea of the proposed highway, particularly through downtown Syracuse, was controversial. Local residents, business interests, and leaders had differing opinions about the highway’s design and location. Many issues, including economic growth, property taxes, housing, and community development, were divisive. Ultimately, the decision was made to construct the highway with its current design and alignment and, by the late 1960s, I-81 was completed through Onondaga County.

I-81 now serves two major transportation functions:

First, I-81 is one of the Syracuse metropolitan area’s major commuter corridors. I-81 provides direct access from suburban and rural communities to downtown Syracuse, the city’s hospitals, Syracuse University, and SUNY-ESF.  Of the region’s 10 largest employers reported by the Greater Syracuse Economic Growth Council, five are located next to I-81.

Second, I-81 is an important national and international trade route. In terms of long-distance hauling, I-81 provides a major alternative to congested I-95. According to the I-81 Corridor Coalition, it has been estimated that 12% of the United States’ Gross Domestic Product travels on some portion of the I-81 corridor. I-81 also serves as an important connection to the east-west route of I-90.

To learn more about I-81 and The I-81 Challenge, check out our project FAQs here.

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