The Syracuse I-81 Viaduct—an update and progress report

By Mary Ebeling
The New York State DOT, the City of Syracuse, and the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council have been working collaboratively for several years to develop alternatives for the replacement of the I-81 viaduct that winds its way through downtown Syracuse. The construction of the interstate through Syracuse changed land use patterns in more than just the city. Surrounding villages and suburbs developed based on the automobile access the new freeway provided. There is agreement that something must be done about the 1.4-mile long, elevated segment of I-81 cutting through the city, but what to build in its place has not been decided.
Early in the project it became clear that any alternative selected will need to consider impacts to the city, suburbs, and region. To fully account for this, NYSDOT launched a comprehensive public outreach effort to gather feedback on project alternatives. That effort emerged as a best practice example of combining traditional outreach with innovative strategies and new technologies. NYSDOT has also created a Facebook page to allow the public to follow the process.
NYSDOT’s alternatives for this project will be out soon and will be included in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. In anticipation of this step some stakeholders are making their priorities known. In late January, the Syracuse Common Council voted unanimously to adopt a resolution in support of the replacement of the viaduct with a street-level boulevard. The council sees a boulevard as the best way to meet numerous goals, including freeing up real estate for development, improving livability, and supporting neighborhoods. Areas outside of the city, on the other hand, have other concerns. Some worry about the potential for heavy truck traffic to be diverted through the community. There is a strong tourist economy in the region and the industry is concerned it may be negatively affected by a change in the highway infrastructure. These groups are interested in preserving the route through the city and have formed the Save81 coalition to lobby for a tunnel/boulevard alternative, asserting that this alternative is the best way to address city development goals while simultaneously preserving freeway access.
Because of the size of the reconstruction project and the far-reaching implications of these decisions, public input is critical as are the engineering, traffic, and cost-benefit analyses that will also be considered. More than 1,000 public comments on potential alternatives have been received, and NYSDOT is incorporating this input as it narrows down the set of alternatives that will be moved forward into the Draft Environmental Impact Study. “As the project moves into this next phase,” NYSDOT Commissioner Joan McDonald notes, “the I-81 project is a good example of how New York State DOT undertakes project evaluation.  We recognize that, in addition to assessing the transportation alternatives, we must also assess the impacts on the community.  We are excited to be working with our partners in the City of Syracuse and the surrounding region to come up with an alternative that meets the transportation needs as well as promotes sustainability and economic vitality.”
Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.