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Scoping sessions highlight I-81's possible future

For five years, central New Yorkers have been talking about what should be done with an interstate viaduct that is reaching the end of its lifespan. The discussion is now formal, with the New York State Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration holding the first scoping session in Syracuse, meant to gather community input on the issue.

It’s the first of two scoping sessions, meant to get central New York's opinions about I-81 on the record. The first two speakers at the late afternoon session crystallized what has become one of the biggest debates about I-81 at this point -- whether to keep it in its current footprint as an elevated highway, convert it into a below grade highway, or build a tunnel. Another option is to create a boulevard-type road, routing through traffic around the city via Interstate 481.
Syracuse’s Common Council President Van Robinson remembers how I-81 destroyed neighborhoods in the 1960s, and thinks a boulevard will bring them together again.

"81 has to go," Robinson said. "The Berlin Wall has to be torn down.”

Salina Town Supervisor Mark Nicotra represents a northern suburb and businesses that sprang up when the interstate brought customers to their doorstep.

"When Interstate 81 was being built in the 1960s, there is no doubt that it isolated and tore apart a Syracuse neighborhood," Nicotra said. "Let’s not repeat history by tearing down Interstate 81 and cutting off the northern suburbs.”

Officials weren’t just taking comments made at the microphone. They also asked for people to drop comment sheets in cardboard boxes, or talk to a representative privately about their views. There’s also a chance to make comments online, and another scoping session next year, followed by a report. State Department of Transportation Spokesman Beau Duffy says after that engineers can get involved with more specific plans.

"We’ll go into the draft environmental impact statement, that will come to a final draft, and there will be a meeting and comment period about that," Duffy said. "Then it moves into the final environmental impact statement and there will be a meeting and comment period on that, and we’ll get to a record of decision. We’re looking at a process that’ll take two years, maybe a little longer.”

The ultimate decision is also expected to cost quite a bit.

“Outside of the Tappen Zee, this is the largest upstate capital transportation construction project," Duffy said. "We’re looking at a project that could cost anywhere from half a billion dollars to well over $1 billion, so it takes a lot of time, energy and planning to say we have a project and we’re ready to build.”

And he says there can’t be too much public input.

“We really appreciate how engaged Syracuse is," Duffy said. "Keep the comments coming.”

Comments on the scoping portion of the timeline will be accepted through January 17.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.