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As public comment period ends, officials talk logistics of I-81 construction

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WXXI News (file photo)
The public comment period on the state DOT's draft environmental impact statement on I-81 ends Thursday

Thursday is the final day to leave a comment on the Interstate 81 viaduct project. Residents have had 60 days to attend a number of meetings, and leave comments on the nearly $2 billion project to remove the elevated portion of the highway in downtown Syracuse.

As the state Department of Transportation sifts through those public comments, officials are clear about one thing. They say the goal is to make sure big construction companies from outside central New York aren’t the only ones bidding for the job.

Project manager Mark Frechette said the state wants local contractors to get a chance to win a bid on the project. To help reach that goal, the first phase of construction, with $800 million worth of work, will be split among five contracts.

"We're doing that to give local contractors the opportunity to be able to bid on this significant amount of work," said Frechette.

The first phase is expected to begin in 2022 and will last about two years, Frechette said.

“I-81 will still stay functional, people will still get off at Harrison and Adams, until those five contracts from phase one are virtually done,” he said. “At some point, we will say they’re done, we’re going to close down the interstate system and that viaduct comes down between phase one and phase two.”

Frechette said the contracts will be assigned based on geography. For example, crews on one contract will work on the 690/Crouse interchange, another bid winner will concentrate on the 81/481 divide.

Frechette said he expects the state will use the same strategy for phase two, which amounts to $1.1 billion worth of work. This phased approach is also important to note, because it will determine when the interstate footprint actually changes.

"The I-81 viaduct does not come out of service until those five contracts are virtually complete. That’s an important concept,” Frechette said. “Those five contracts will take about two years to build. And it will be very aggressive construction."

Currently, the state is fine-tuning the Environmental Impact Statement based on a community grid model that will route traffic around the city of Syracuse via Interstate 481. That is the state’s preferred solution, but the ultimate decision lies with the federal government.