Down to 2 final options, the state grows closer to deciding the fate of Interstate 81

Wasim Ahmad | Staff Photographer

A portion of Interstate 81 near Syracuse will be replaced, and the options for doing so are down to two.

Posters with information about the potential future of Interstate 81 in Syracuse lined the perimeter of the cafeteria in Cicero-North Syracuse High School on Tuesday evening as local residents filed in and out, hoping to learn more about what might happen to the major highway.

In one section of the cafeteria were posters labeled “viaduct alternative,” and in another were posters labeled “community grid alternative.” Those are the two remaining options — dwindled down from the 16 options originally presented in 2014 — being considered for replacing the highway’s elevated portion in Syracuse. A draft environmental impact statement is likely to be made available in early January and a final decision is expected sometime in 2017.

“There’s a lot of information that is being collected and needs analysis,” said Gene Cilento, the NYSDOT Region 3 public information officer.

The viaduct alternative option would consist of replacing the current viaduct with a wider version, while the community grid alternative would involve removing the elevated highway near Almond Street and distributing traffic onto the city grid.

Both options include some of the same plans, which have been dubbed the “common features.” Among them is a plan to connect Interstate 690 and I-81 near North Syracuse by building a new set of ramps, something that has come up as a point of controversy. The Syracuse Common Council on Monday passed a resolution calling for the New York State Department of Transportation to reconsider that aspect of the reconstruction.

If the viaduct alternative is pursued, the existing I-81 viaduct will be demolished and reconstructed between Colvin and Spencer streets. The new viaduct, according to the NYSDOT, would include four 12-foot travel lanes and 10-foot-wide shoulders. Some curves would also be straightened out. Almond Street would be reconstructed and amenities to the street would be explored.

If the community grid is pursued, the existing viaduct will be demolished and traffic will be rerouted around the city on Interstate 481, which would become I-81. Almond Street would become a surface street and amenities would be explored.

Cilento said he has “been getting a sentiment that it’s about a 50-50 split” among members of the public who have come to community meetings and are considering the two options.

“Some of them say keep the existing viaduct, because it generally works and the traffic patterns have been set up for it, and if we go changing the traffic patterns, you don’t know ultimately where all the traffic is going to wind up,” he said. “… But then others see the community grid as a way to preserve buildings downtown and a way to disperse traffic in a way that hasn’t been seen in a number of years.”

Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud said in an interview with The Daily Orange this fall that his main concern is for the improvement of accessibility to the campus. He said either option could work to accomplish that, “but not if there’s a chokepoint of access at Harrison and (East) Adams streets that is somewhat of a nightmare currently.”

Syverud added that, regardless of which option is chosen, he would like to see an enhanced connection among SU’s neighborhood, the downtown neighborhood and other neighborhoods.

“So I can live with either option but I want either one to have elements that improve access to campus and improve connections,” he said.

Included in both of those options is a “missing link” feature of the viaduct project, which consists of connecting I-690 west to I-81 north with a new set of ramps. A resolution was unanimously approved at Monday’s Common Council meeting calling on New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo to direct the NYSDOT to rethink that part of the plan.

Councilor Joseph Nicoletti said the missing link feature has the potential to serve as a divider on the north side and Councilor Joseph Carni said it could potentially “destroy everything that’s been done” to improve that area of the city.

“I truly hope that the DOT comes back, looks at this and presents us with options without (the missing link),” Carni said at the meeting.

Gary Holmes, director of the communications office for the NYSDOT, said in a statement that the NYSDOT is “committed to analyze” the missing link feature moving forward.

“While that analysis will not be included as part of the draft environmental impact statement, there will be open dialogue … on the transportation solutions in the area before the final version of the environmental impact statement,” he said.

After the draft environmental impact statement is made available in January, there will be follow-up public hearings that will give community members additional opportunities to submit feedback.

Based on that feedback and further analysis of the social, environmental and economic impacts of the options, a preferred alternative and a record of decision will be made by the NYSDOT, Cilento said.

“Sometime after that, when money becomes available, construction will begin,” he added.


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