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DOT announces changes to I-81 project; cost and duration both increase

An artist rendering of a traffic roundabout located at Van Buren St. in downtown Syracuse
An artist rendering of a traffic roundabout located at Van Buren St. in downtown Syracuse

The New York State Department of Transportation is getting closer to final federal and state approval for the I-81 project in Syracuse. But some changes are coming to the project, following an extended public comment period last summer and fall.

First off, the centerpiece of the biggest public works project ever in central New York doesn’t change, according to project manager Mark Frechette. The community grid alternative is still the preferred way to replace the aging viaduct in downtown Syracuse.

"Based on the need for a safe and efficient transportation system, in a balanced consideration of social, economic, and environmental effects for all the alternatives we’ve studied as part of this project,” Frechette said.

There was a large outcry over building a traffic roundabout near the Dr. King Elementary School on E. Raynor Ave. Frechette said engineers have devised a plan to use the roundabout about a half-mile closer to downtown, to Van Buren Street.

"This area here at Van Buren is a great gateway. People are going to know they’ve arrived in Syracuse,” Frechette said.

That will also offer an alternative route to University Hill and hospitals in that area. More than 7,500 comments from residents, along with state and local lawmakers, led the charge to move the roundabout, which the DOT says is necessary to slow high-speed traffic coming from 81 into the community grid using this two-lane 30-mile an hour traffic circle. The state will also include an approximately five-acre buffer between the school neighborhood and the highway.

The other big difference in the environmental impact study sent to the feds recently, is that it’s going to cost more than the initial $2 billion estimate, and take longer to complete.

"DOT and FHWA, our federal administration partner, are increasing the cost of the I-81 project to $2.25 billion and will extend the duration of the project from five years to six years,” Frechette said.

DOT bases this on potential supply chain issues, inflation, and other concerns. Frechette said groundbreaking is still on target for later this year, with a final environmental impact statement outlining the details of the plan, expected this spring.

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.