Movement on renovating Interstate 81 through Syracuse has been stuck in a traffic jam for the past few years.
Good portions of I-81 are more than 50 years old and need major repairs. Federal and state officials have considered reconstructing the steel and concrete viaducts that transport vehicles through downtown Syracuse; tearing down I-81 in Central Syracuse, then redesignating I-481 to I-81 and creating a community grid of urban streets in place of the viaducts; and replacing the highway with a tunnel through downtown Syracuse.
Nearly two years ago, the state Department of Transportation said that it favored the community grid concept. While officials reversed direction and extended the study, they reverted to their previous position earlier this year.
“A new Draft Environmental Impact Statement on Interstate 81 renovations in Syracuse says routing through traffic to a ring road is the most viable option for repairing the aging highway that cuts through the core of the city. The project was begun due to the age of much of I-81, which was built in the 1960s, through the center of the city. The project considered options for maintaining the current structure, building a tunnel, rebuilding a viaduct and the favored proposal — a ground-level community grid to replace the deteriorating elevated highway,” according to a story published April 24 by the Watertown Daily Times. “The total cost of the community grid is $1.9 billion, while rebuilding the viaduct would cost $2.2 billion. The funding is projected to be 80 percent federal and 20 percent state. For the community grid proposal, I-81 would be moved to the current Route 481. This new 81, now Route 481, would be expanded to seven lanes and route through traffic around downtown. The current viaduct that carries I-81 through the city would be dismantled and the highway would instead blend into the city traffic.”
Many people in Central New York, however, have expressed concern that the community grid option would move traffic around downtown Syracuse rather than through it. A coalition called Smart Growth-CNY proposed a hybrid, of sorts, a roadway comprised of a tunnel and a ground-level highway. The tunnel would allow the construction of a community grid of streets above ground, reuniting the bifurcated downtown.
The tunnel would replace the elaborate steel viaducts snaking their way from the I-690 intersection south. The rest of I-81 would be reconstructed at ground level.
A group called Save81.org also opposes the community grid option favored by the DOT. It said on its website that this plan, “which would reroute I-81 around the city, could harm the region’s economy and public safety while also clogging traffic in Syracuse, which today is known as a ‘20-minute city’ — where you can get anywhere in a short period of time. Numerous hotels, restaurants, gas stations and small businesses would now face a substantial loss of visitors and revenue if I-81 traffic were to be diverted away from the city. Rerouted traffic running through the surrounding communities would also create environmental and infrastructure concerns.”
After studying the DOT’s report, Save81.org raised questions about the claims made by the agency on the practicality of the community grid option. In a report analyzing this plan, the group wrote: “With just a little digging into the DOT’s DEIS, it quickly becomes apparent that the DOT’s public statements and marketing messages are in stark contrast to the DOT’s own engineering analyses. The first are works of marketing finesse [that] conflict unmistakably with the facts found in the DEIS.”
Many key stakeholders strongly support Save81.org’s position. They’ve written letters to state and federal officials urging them to choose an option that keeps traffic moving through downtown Syracuse. They include trade organizations and local elected officials.
The community grid option being promoted by the DOT would divert traffic away from Syracuse’s downtown. This would thwart motorists, including those from the north country, from accessing the city’s vital institutions: hospitals, financial institutions, hotels and numerous other businesses. Such a plan must be rejected by those undertaking this reconstruction project.
There doesn’t appear to be a strong consensus on how to proceed, so state and federal officials must keep all options on the table. They need to be honest about their research and remain open about carrying out a project that will truly benefit this stretch of Central New York.