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Judge: Work on 81 project can continue, but viaduct stays until more environmental reviews are done

Payne Horning
WRVO News (file photo)

A State Supreme Court judge has ruled the state can continue work on the $2.25 billion Interstate 81 project, but also requires more environmental reviews before the state can tear down the elevated portion of the highway that runs through downtown Syracuse.

State Supreme Court Justice Gerard Neri ruled Tuesday on a lawsuit brought by the group Renew 81 for All, which opposes plans to replace the Interstate 81 viaduct with a community grid. That plan would create a street-level boulevard for traffic headed through downtown Syracuse, and would route through traffic onto what is currently I-481.

In the ruling, Neri is ordering the state to conduct a "Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement" that would address what Neri called "deficiencies in the air quality analysis on the present I-481 corridor as a result of diverted traffic from the demolition of the I-81 viaduct in downtown Syracuse, failure to provide specific analysis on impact to water resources due to stormwater management not being finalized, and invalid future traffic projections as a result of the imminent Micron Factory Campus."

While Neri's ruling does not allow for the removal of the elevated viaduct, it does allow the state to move forward with the parts of the project, including improvements to I-481, and I-81 interchanges north and south of the city, as well as work on some streets on Syracuse’s Northside.

In a statement after the ruling, Renew 81 for All claimed victory. Alan Knauf the lead attorney for the group said they are pleased that the judge agreed with their arguments that the state’s environmental review of the project was not complete.

"We are pleased that Judge Neri has agreed with us that the State needs to go back to the drawing board and rethink this project in light of traffic, air quality and other defects," Knauf said. "This time around, they should come to the conclusion that I-81 needs to exist in the city of Syracuse in order to minimize impacts to the environment and the community.

The state Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the project, said in a statement that it is reviewing the court’s decision and determining next steps.

"In the meantime, we are moving forward with contracts as part of the I-81 viaduct project, per the court’s decision," said DOT spokesman Joe Morrissey.

A statement from the city of Syracuse said the ruling creates “uncertainty and overrides a comprehensive and established state and federal regulatory process."

New York has spent more than a decade trying to figure out what to do with a crumbling viaduct that divided the city and destroyed a largely African American neighborhood on the city’s Southside. The community grid plan was meant to right some of those wrongs, but it has run into headwinds from suburban communities opposed to routing high-speed traffic around the city.

The federal government is paying the bulk of the bill, and millions of dollars in state and local funds have already been earmarked to prepare for the community grid plan, which was approved by the state DOT last 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.