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Town supervisors say community grid replacing I-81 in Syracuse will ‘fail miserably’

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
Clay Town Supervisor Damian Ulatowski (speaking) with other Onondaga County town supervisors.

Onondaga County town supervisors are objecting to Gov. Andrew Cuomo allocating $800 million in the budget towards replacing the elevated I-81 highway in downtown Syracuse with a street-level community grid. The state DOT selected that as the preferred option. The town supervisors, who represent nearly 70% of the county, want some kind of high-speed access through the city, like a depressed highway or suspension bridge.

Clay Town Supervisor Damian Ulatowski said state and federal transportation officials are not listening to their concerns.

“Our constituents need to be taken into consideration in this proposal. Not just the city,” Ulatowski said.

Having only the community grid, he said, would fail miserably because it would bring thousands of cars and trucks onto city streets creating gridlock, pollution, traffic accidents and would reduce pedestrian safety. The current proposal not only eliminates 1.4 miles of the elevated highway, but also reroutes roughly 13 miles of the existing I-81 to Interstate-481, which goes around the city and the Town of Salina.

“Community grid-only would crush businesses that directly rely on Interstate 81,” Ulatowski said.

Salina Town Supervisor Colleen Gunnip said her town has fueling stations, 19 hotels and 50-60 restaurants that were built around I-81.

“If that traffic gets rerouted, all of those businesses go away,” Gunnip said.

She's still waiting on an economic analysis of how the I-81 project would impact businesses in the northern suburbs. That’s included in the DOT’s draft environmental impact statement, under review by the Federal Highway Administration, and expected to be made public later this summer.

Ulatowski and the town supervisors wrote letters to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Governor Cuomo, Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, asking to be included in any future meetings.

“Not once have we been recognized for our position, or been invited to the table to have a dialogue. I think that’s what needs to happen,” Ulatowski said.

Momentum for the project has been building. Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh, a supporter of the community grid, met with Buttigieg’s staff in February and called it very encouraging. President Joe Biden mentioned I-81 in his infrastructure pitch.

Town of Clay, NY letter to Transportation Secretary Buttigieg by Kelly Nickerson on Scribd

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.