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I-81 compromise option not pleasing everyone

Ellen Abbott
Friday's press conference by state Sen. John DeFrancisco and Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli drew lots of opposition.

The future of Interstate 81 through downtown Syracuse hinges on an independent investigation of the options, currently being overseen by the New York State Department of Transportation. In the meantime, champions of different options for the aging highway continue to butt heads.

State Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse) and Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli (D-Syracuse) hosted a news conference Friday to announce results of a recent report that contends that community grid option, that would turn I-81 into a street-level boulevard, is not the best solution for replacing the aging viaduct. The study was sponsored by a group called Save81.org.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
I-81 through Syracuse.

The announcement quickly turned into a sparring match between the two lawmakers on one side and a host of individuals who don’t like talk of a hybrid solution on the other side. The lawmakers says the hybrid, which would include a community grid and a 1.2-mile tunnel under the city, is the best option for everyone.

“It’s got to be a solution that works for the western suburbs, eastern suburbs, north and south, and the people traveling through the city,” DeFrancisco said.

“How about the people that live here senator?” asked someone in the crowd. “They’re not on your list of the people that matter.”

Assemblyman Magnarelli rose to DeFrancisco’s defense.

“Let me take that. That’s absolutely not true. And if you were listening to me two minutes ago, I’m talking about the people in the city. They will be impacted by just the grid. So by saying we’re not considering the people who live here, is altogether false,” Magnarelli said.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
DeFrancisco (left) and Magnarelli addressing the I-81 press conference.

That back-and-forth illustrates the issues that have defined the I-81 debate from the start. Suburban residents, especially those north and west of the the city, believe a community grid would damage their neighborhoods. It would funnel northbound traffic eastward onto I-481.

Some city residents believe a community grid option would be best for minority neighborhoods in the city, which were fractured when the current elevated highway was built in the 1960s. It’s that history that places CNY Solidarity leader Dana Balter in the community grid camp.

"A decision that was made about transportation policy has in many respects harmed our city in very consequential ways. And I want to be sure that now we have the chance to redo that mistake, we don’t make the same mistake again,” Balter said.

DeFrancisco says the entire central New York state legislative delegation believes the best solution should take regional needs into account. That’s why he believes the grid-tunnel combination is the best compromise.

"Get rid of the viaducts, get the community grid that you want. And then have the through traffic on the short tunnel. But apparently compromise wasn’t enough, and I guess nothing will be enough,” DeFrancisco said.

Ultimately it’s up to New York state to pick an option. The Department of Transportation has hired a consultant to evaluate three options, which also include rebuilding the elevated viaduct that has reached the end of its lifespan. The study is expected to be released later this summer.