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Officials give final approval for 81 project; construction to start this fall

NYS Department of Transportation
An artist rendering of Crouse Avenue at the new I-690 interchange at Crouse and Irving.

State officials have announced a major milestone in the $2.25 billion Interstate 81 viaduct project. The state and federal governments have signed a formal Record of Decision that will allow construction to begin this fall.

This final step in the environmental review process was a long time coming. Conversations from community groups about removing an elevated viaduct that divided downtown Syracuse, and destroyed a predominantly black neighborhood in the 1950s, started in 2008. The state Department of Transportation got in the act in earnest in 2013, and since then there have been hundreds of meetings, revised drawings, and thousands of community comments leading to this day.

“I think we bit off a lot with the project, because you’ve got three interstates, I-81, 481, 690. You got a lot of downtown streets. We have well over 50 bridges that will be built as part of this. Miles of interest that will be built as part of this, said I-81 project manager Mark Frechette. “When we started, we didn’t know that. And the project has grown."

Ellen Abbott
NYS Department of Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez, left, and 81 Project Director Mark Frechette announce that the plan to replace the elevated portion of 81 in downtown Syracuse has been given the final stamp of approval

It’s the biggest transportation project the state has ever undertaken upstate, which involves taking down the hulking viaduct and replacing it with a community grid, then re-routing all high speed traffic around Syracuse via Interstate 481.

Initially, once construction begins this fall, Frechette figures most motorists won’t feel much impact, with much of the work being done in outer areas first.

"A lot of the work at the interchange is done not where the interstate is, said Frechette. “So we can build a lot of infrastructure right next to it. They’ll see that. They’ll see that work over the next couple years. But related to the flow of traffic, we plan on continuing to maintain I-81, I-690, I-481 traffic through all the phase one of construction."

That should take the project through 2025. After that, the viaduct will come down and through traffic will be rerouted on I-481. The project is expected to take six years to complete. The federal government is paying for the bulk of the work. The state plans on opening up a community project center to answer any questions about what’s happening.

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.