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CNY residents weigh in on I-81 plans during public hearings this week

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Ellen Abbott
Central New York residents line up at the OnCenter in Syracuse for their chance to comment on the plans for Interstate 81 in Syracuse

The biggest public works project in central New York is getting vetted by the public during a 60-day public comment period that moves into high gear this week. Dozens of people have already weighed in on the state’s proposed plan in virtual and in-person hearings.

The proposed plan would replace the crumbling I-81 viaduct through the city of Syracuse with a community grid while rerouting traffic around the city on Interstate 481.

The project’s manager, Mark Frechette, said the comment period will only make the state plans better.

"We take these steps to really optimize the solution, so it can be the best project from a transportation perspective, but from any other perspective also,” said Frechette.

One of the most discussed aspects of the plan so far: a roundabout near a school that will slow down traffic heading into the city. State Senator Rachel May, D–Syracuse, is among those concerned that the roundabout would be dangerous and create more pollution in an already at-risk neighborhood. She understands the roundabout strategy, but would prefer it further south along the highway.

“I don’t know if it adds additional cost, bringing the highway down sooner, and that probably changes other things as well, but I do know they’re listening,” said May.

Ellen Abbott
State Sen. Rachel May (D-Syracuse) looks at some of the plans for replacing I-81 in downtown Syracuse

The public hearing crystalizes the core dispute over the state’s proposal. On the city’s side, Mayor Ben Walsh testified the time is right for the state to put an end to a giant road that split the community in half and destroyed a predominantly Black neighborhood in the 50s.

"With the community grid, the [Department of Transportation] is seizing the transformation moment before us and creating the best framework to correct the historic wrongs that hurt city residents."

Governments and businesses north of the city are on the other side of things, saying taking down the highway will hurt business and disrupt residents lives. Onondaga County Legislator Judy Tassone, who represents the towns of Salina, Cicero and DeWitt, suggested that since the state introduced the plan a month ago, more time is needed to digest it and make reasonable comments.

"With such a massive document coming out, maybe some more time to go over details and for the towns to come up with their studies outlining their concerns that they can document,” said Tassone.

Nicholas Choubah, Acting Engineer for the New York State Department of Transportation, said the state has already extended the comment period beyond what is required, from 45 to 60 days.

“We have to move forward,” he said. “This project is many hears in the making but nonetheless–if we receive comment with the intent of reaching out and listening and the majority feels we must extend, you have to consult with federal highway. But final decision is [a] consultation of NYS DOT with Federal highway."

The comment period runs through September 14. There are more public hearings and anyone can write a letter or email a form. The state will digest these comments, come up with a final environmental impact statement, and hopes to begin work on the project next year.

Watch Wednesday's public hearing below.