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I-81 replacement project could get the "green light" in a matter of weeks

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Scott Willis
U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer speaking in front of the I-81 viaduct

The final approval needed for the massive I-81 replacement project to move forward is apparently just weeks away.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer made the announcement Monday on East Genesee Street as traffic roared by on the viaduct less than half a block away. He said he got confirmation from Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg Friday that approval of the environmental impact statement is forthcoming.

“I was very gratified that the timeline of the EIS, which is really the last major hurdle, is happening in the next several weeks to be approved,” Schumer said. “Sometimes it takes years for these EIS’s to be approved.  That’s the last gate that has to open.” 

The EIS approval triggers a final 30-day comment period, followed by the record of decision, or final authorization. Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh also met with a number of officials in Washington last week to discuss the project and walked away feeling reassured it’s a top priority.

Across the board, everyone agrees that the I-81 project is the type of project that the federal government is looking for to invest in infrastructure, but at the same time to invest in communities.  Coming away from Washington, it was clear that the stars are aligned between the leadership, the policy, funding, and the bi-partisan infrastructure law,” Walsh said.

The $2 billion I-81 replacement project comes from a $20 billion pot of money dedicated to highway projects, as well as legislation aimed at reconnecting communities like Syracuse split by old highways. All contain local training and hiring provisions. Greg Lancette said that’s long overdue. He is president of the Central-Northern New York Building and Construction Trades Council.

“We have been saying for years that it’s all about the dollars staying locally and local opportunity.  This is a great chance where community members are going to have an opportunity to join the industry, learn a trade, and go on with a portable skillset.  It’s really encouraging to have the momentum continue,” Lancette said.

But, those that live in the shadow of the viaduct are worried about housing and environmental issues that construction will bring. Schumer said any project of this magnitude will mean some displacement for those living closest to the highway.

“The mayor and [Syracuse Housing Authority Executive Director] Bill Simmons hears a lot from concerned residents that they want to know the status of their housing, and that their health and safety won’t be at risk.  I’m assured that DOT is going to work diligently with the state and the mayor to deal with those concerns,” Schumer said.

Schumer estimated the EIS approval will come by May, and work will begin at year’s end. But phase one of the project actually won’t have anything to do with the viaduct. State DOT officials have said work will start to the east on what’s now I-481, adding lanes and improving interchanges to create will be the new I-81.

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Scott Willis
Greg Lancette, president of the Central-Northern New York Building and Construction Trades Council

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at