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Officials talk up environmental benefits of I-81 project

Payne Horning
WRVO News (file photo)

The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Interstate 81 project in downtown Syracuse includes information on every conceivable aspect of a plan to tear down the elevated portion of the highway and replace it with a community grid.

The State Department of Transportation has been tweaking the draft document for the last year. The report, now available online, answers all 8,000 written comments about the project and analyzes why the community grid plan was chosen out of 35 alternatives.

One point of importance the state wants to emphasize, is what it’s calling “environmental resiliency.”

State DOT Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez stood in front of Syracuse’s Inner Harbor recently to announce the completion of the milestone report. Even though the highway is nearly a half-mile away, there was a reason for that location.

"There’s also environmental benefits, one of which is improved water quality, which is why we chose this location,” said Dominguez.

The connection between water quality and an interstate highway can be pinned to water runoff that streams into a community’s sewer system after a storm. The $2.2 billion project takes that into consideration.

“As part of the project, DOT will construct nearly 18,000 linear feet of new storm sewer trunk lines and other enhancements that will help prevent overflows during heavy rains and protect Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Lake,” Dominguez said.

Flooding has long been an issue along certain parts of 81, and storm water has created overflow situations at Onondaga County’s waste water treatment plant, which in turn has affected Onondaga Lake.

Mark Frechette, I-81 project manager, said the idea behind these new sewer lines is to allow the water to avoid the sewers altogether.

Interstate 81 project manager Mark Freschette and State Department of Transportation Commissioner Colleen Dominguez speak about the 81 project in Syracuse
Ellen Abbott
Interstate 81 project manager Mark Freschette and State Department of Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez speak about the 81 project in Syracuse

"We’re going to separate the storm water, which is on the roads at all, and we’ll put that right into the creek and lake,” Frechette said. “Clean water and that will save millions of dollars and millions of treatments that don’t have to go through the sewage treatment plant.”

And Frechette said there will be even more impacts on Syracuse’s water lines, many of which are over 100 years old and often lead to major water line breaks.

"Everybody who lives in this area knows the problem the city has with water lines,” Frechette said. “I didn’t mention those. Those will be impacted and replaced and won’t break in the future. At least not for another hundred years.”

Information on every aspect of the I-81 project is included in the final statement that is available on the Department of Transportation website. A public comment period and review period ends May 16. After that, a Record of Decision from both the state and federal governments is expected, and that will clear the way for awarding of contracts and ultimately a groundbreaking on the mammoth project this fall.

The project is expected to be completed in 2028.

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.