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State DOT officials grilled at public meeting over I-81 tunnel option in Syracuse

Tom Magnarelli
A public meeting on the I-81 tunnel option in Syracuse.

State Department of Transportation officials said it is possible a tunnel could be reconsidered as an option for the I-81 reconstruction project in Syracuse. But I-81 project director Mark Frechette made it very clear at a public meeting why the tunnel option was eliminated.

State DOT officials took a grilling from elected officials and community leaders in central New York who are upset that the tunnel was eliminated as an option for replacing the viaduct through downtown Syracuse. Currently, the state DOT is considering rebuilding a larger viaduct or replacing it with a street-level grid. Frechette said they scrapped the tunnel because of property impacts, cost, soil conditions and community disruption.

“The intensity and the duration of construction related to building tunnels through a very urban environment is significant,” Frechette said. “Because of some of those reasons, we have recommended that the tunnels not be viable solutions.”

State Sen. John DeFrancisco said the tunnel is a compromise between people that want to keep the viaduct as it is and those that want the community grid. Many in the audience at the public meeting agreed.

“We’ve got tunnels in major cities, in small cities, they somehow did them there,” DeFrancisco said. “And if the consensus is that people want the community grid with the tunnel, it’s inconceivable to me that there’s not a way to do it and avoid each one of those items.”  

Onondaga County Legislature Chairman Ryan McMahon said the tunnel is the only option that can unite the community.

“I can assure you if a tunnel can be built underneath the Hudson and can be built in Boston, we can do it in Syracuse,” McMahon said. “I can promise you that debate; there are five engineers that can give it right back to you why this can happen, why this can’t.”

An environmental impact statement on rebuilding a new viaduct and the community grid options will be released early next year. That will be followed by a public comment period when the tunnel could be reconsidered.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.