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Tunnel, depressed highway are out in plans for new I-81

Zack Seward
Another public meeting on the future of Interstate 81 is set for Thursday.

Syracuse looks less likely to go through its own Big Dig, as state highway transportation officials recommend a tunnel or depressed highway are not the best options for a rebuilt Interstate 81 through Syracuse.

Transportation officials have been considering several variations of four core options for a new I-81: a rebuilt viaduct, a street-level boulevard, a tunnel, or sunken roadway.

"The alternatives that were recommended to be moved forward meet the project goals. The ones that we’re recommending to not move forward, don’t meet the project goals," said DOT spokesman Beau Duffy.

The state DOT released more details and new recommendations on those plans ahead of a Thursday public meeting and public comment period.

A tunnel - one variation of which was five miles long and 81 feet deep - or depressed roadway would be too expensive, too hard to build, or too impactful to overall traffic flow in Syracuse, according to Duffy.

"Both of those alternatives would actually end up dead-ending several streets because of the way the roads would need to be constructed and connected to the highway north and south of Syracuse," Duffy said Monday.

Also on the chopping block is a western suburb bypass for the highway and use of West Street as a bypass.

The 1.4 miles of elevated Interstate 81 that travels through Syracuse is crumbling and state and federal highway officials are in the midst of a lengthy process of deciding how to rebuild the roadway. 

(Read all of WRVO's I-81 coverage)

Credit N.Y. Dept. of Transportation

While a rebuilt viaduct seems to have a 50/50 shot of being the ultimate solution, a stacked viaduct will not be recommended, Duffy said.

A rebuilt viaduct would be wider, slightly taller and have a faster speed limit than the one there now. A few dozen buildings in the city would have to be torn down to make room.

If the street-level - or urban - boulevard makes it through, the eastern bypass of I-481 would become I-81, with sections improved to handle faster speeds. The roadway through the city would become a state route.

Other new details include the possibility of a new Exit 18 further south, near Burt Street, to handle traffic to the University Hill.

Exits 19 and 20 on the northern side of downtown would be redone. 

This report is "not the final word," said Duffy and public comments could convince planners to revive an idea or consider a new one.

Thursday's information center is at the OnCenter in downtown Syracuse. Presentations will be made at 4 and 6 p.m. Public comments will be taken through Sept. 2. Duffy said they will be holding neighborhood meetings throughout the summer as well.