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Latest state plan gives more details about I-81 project

An artist rendering of the Almond/Harrison St. intersection

The New York State Department of Transportation released updated plans Friday to replace the Interstate 81 viaduct in downtown Syracuse with a community grid.

“Both New York State Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration are recommending the community grid as its preferred alternative to address the deficiencies that we have on the I-81 viaduct in downtown Syracuse,” said Mark Frechette, the project manager. 

See new project renderings of the expected before and after of the I-81 project

Local leaders, such as Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh, have supported the proposal of a community grid in downtown Syracuse well ahead of the release of Friday’s document. Walsh said, aside from the efficiency of transportation and environmental benefits of removing the viaduct, a community grid would also reintroduce communities that have long been severed by the presence of the elevated highway.

“It presents us with an opportunity to reknit the fabric of the city that was disrupted during the original construction,” said Walsh. “And it gives us an opportunity to heal some of those wounds, particularly in our Black and Brown community, which was disproportionately impacted by this project.” 

State officials agreed with Walsh, saying the community grid will have tremendous socioeconomic benefits among other things. 

“We believe that this project is a once in a generation opportunity to truly right the wrongs of the past, creating equity, enhancing sustainability, and really catapulting the city of Syracuse and central New York to new heights,” said New York State Department of Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez.

I-81 New Front Project

The Department of Transportation expects their plan to remove the viaduct, replace it with a community grid, and reroute the majority of traffic around the city to take about five years from the time they hope to start in 2022 and will cost an estimated $1.9 billion.

The initial plan would reroute I-81 to the existing I-481 and open up roughly 10 to 12.5 acres of land and tear down 1.4 miles of I-81 from the I-690 interchange to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, adjacent to the south end of Syracuse University. 

In Friday’s updated plan, officials want to make updates to I-481’s Exit 3–which gets off around the Wegmans near Dewitt and Fayetteville–and would update Lyndon Corners, where Routes 5 and 92 meet. They'd also like to widen several sections of the existing I-481 to calm traffic.

They also proposed a new exit at Colvin St., which would happen in the first year of construction. Two more exits are also proposed on I-690 at Crouse and Irving Avenues to supplement access to schools and hospitals on University Hill.

There will also be a roundabout established right outside of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School to calm traffic in that area. However, State Senator Rachel May, who represents much of Syracuse, expressed concern about pedestrian safety around the roundabout. She cited that typically roundabouts tend to not be pedestrian friendly and that it seems closer to the elementary school than initially proposed. 

State officials ensured that they took pedestrian safety into consideration and that’s why they’ve kept all sidewalks and bicycle access on the west side of the roundabout to avoid the need to cross it. 

Within the statement, the Department of Transportation also pledged both to work toward local hiring for jobs related to the construction and to establish a community committee to oversee how the land freed up by the removal of the viaduct will be used. It’s unclear what the process for selecting community members to participate will be. 

Since the proposal to replace the viaduct with a community grid was introduced, there’s been concern from suburban residents about being cut off from Syracuse regarding both transportation and economic accessibility for themselves and their businesses. 

“The existing 12-year-old community grid-only proposal is tired, will greatly increase traffic throughout city neighborhoods and damage businesses across the region,” said leaders from the group titled “Save 81.” 

However, as part of the Environmental Impact Survey, the Department of Transportation did an economic impact analysis to address the concerns of residents in neighboring towns like Salina, Clay and Cicero. According to their analysis, hotels along the slot of I-81 in question will lose roughly 1.3% of bookings, Destiny USA would lose about 2.8% of shoppers, and the Town of Salina’s tax levy would be unaffected.

Walsh said that, while he still believes the community grid is the best option, he wants to make sure this plan addresses the needs and concerns of all of the regions’ residents.

“I'm going to stand with everyone in this community to make sure that we maximize the benefit of this project, that we get local people to work, and then we improve the quality of life for everyone living in the city and throughout the region,” he said. 

Walsh also said he spoke to Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon after the statement’s release on Friday and that McMahon did express some concerns about traffic challenges to the north.

Overall, though, Walsh said he’s impressed with the updated plan.

“I'm very encouraged by what I'm seeing in the revised DEIS,” he said. “It shows that the state has been listening. I see a number of the concerns that have been raised both by the city and some of our suburban counterparts have been addressed.”

Now that this statement has been released, a 60-day period of public comment will open for the Department of Transportation to receive feedback.

“Over the next 60 days until September 14 at 5 p.m., the public will have another opportunity to comment on this document. And we really encourage folks to do that,” said Dominguez.

There will be two formal public hearings scheduled to discuss the project. The first one is a virtual session on August 17 and the second is in-person at the OnCenter on August 18. Prior to these, state officials said they will be providing a comprehensive summary of the plan, along with renderings and a video, on their website and will be distributing a newsletter with the same information.

Residents can also submit a comment online, leave a comment via voicemail by calling 1-855-I81-TALK (1-855-481-8255) or by sending a comment in the mail.

After taking public comment into consideration, the Department of Transportation will submit their final proposal by the end of the year.