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Options narrow, opinions widen on I-81's future through Syracuse

Zack Seward

Transportation planners have narrowed the future of Interstate 81’s path through downtown Syracuse down to two likely options: rebuild, or re-route.

They hosted another in a series of public forums Tuesday, known as The I-81 Challenge, to display the ideas. But a final decision is still years away.

The 1.4 mile elevated portion of 81 through the heart of the city, known as the viaduct, is nearing the end its lifespan. It's in need of near constant repair.

Planners have deemed reconstruction, and the idea to re-route the highway and build an ‘urban boulevard’ through downtown, as the most feasible options for the highway’s second incarnation.

None of the options will have a major impact on traffic through the city, says Jim D’Agostino, director of the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council.

"For most of the scenarios that you look at, you can make the transportation system work. It’s going to require mitigation, but the traffic system actually, the models are showing, work, which is nice to see," D'Agostino says.

The SMTC spent the past several months conducting traffic studies to decide which of the original five optionswould be the most feasible.

Syracuse resident John Ward says the urban boulevard wouldn’t divide the city the way the current highway does.

"I like the brining of the two sides back together," he says. "I think it would be beneficial to the city, the social life."

City resident Robert Synakowski says the highway should come down in favor of better public transportation.

"We don’t need to be in cars, we just don’t need to be," he says. "We should have better busses and better trollies and not [be] living 15 or 20 miles out."

But several businesses north of the city told state transportation officials this spring that re-routing the highway would steer customers away from them.

"Route 81 keeps Syracuse directly at the center of everything in New York state," says Joe Bauer, a resident of northern suburb Clay.

The county legislature voted recently to express opposition to the urban boulevard plan and say the function of 81 should remain the same.

"We don't know if the boulevard is the right option. Having an Erie Boulevard on steroids, to us, is a concern," said Republican County Legislative Chairman Ryan McMahon, who attended the forum.

The next step will be an environmental review by the state Department of Transportation. A decision on I-81’s future is not expected until 2017, when the elevated stretch turns 50 years old.