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Mayor Walsh, County Executive McMahon Looking Forward After I-81 Report


The Syracuse Mayor and Onondaga County Executive say the state DOT’s initial recommendation of a boulevard to replace I-81 through the city’s core presents a new opportunity to unite the community and move the transformative project forward.  

The long-awaited report isn’t likely to end the debate anytime soon.  Both Ben Walsh and Ryan McMahon say it’s important to see the project through the eyes of others. 

“I’ve heard from many people in the city, living in the shadow of 81 itself, concerned about what happens regardless of the outcome," said Walsh.  "What happens to their homes, what happens to the land around there?  We need to listen to the concerns of our suburban neighbors, as well as businesses that have their business model based largely on the existing infrastructure.”

Mayor Walsh expands on conversations he had with DOT officials regarding residents who live near the current I-81 viaduct, downtown employees and buildings that will be impacted, and land use in the future.

"For the same reasons, that many of our neighbors in the city want the highway down so you create that connectivity and opportunity that’s been lost, that highway has meant connectivity to the community for other neighborhoods," added McMahon.  "It’s a complicated issue, hence the time and emotion behind it.”

McMahon says the town of Salina was farmland until 81 was built, and hotels and restaurants quickly followed.  He says any plan going forward must include mitigation to offset any negative impacts to residents and businesses, or he predicts there could be litigation. 

County Exec McMahon explains his approach to dealing with problems brought on by the community grid, including the idea that some might want to bring lawsuits to recover business losses.

Mayor Walsh calls the potential of the project “exciting.”  He encourages everyone to read the state’s detailed report and be informed about what’s being proposed. 

Public meetings on the project could start in June, followed by a public hearing.  That kicks-off a 45 day comment period which will inform the state’s final report.  Most don’t expect a final decision until early 2020. 


The leadership of the Onondaga County Legislature is not falling in behind the County Executive in supporting the Community Grid option, while finding ways to mitigate negative impacts.  Chair Dave Knapp and Majority Leader Brian May, speaking for the Republican Caucus, expressed disappointment in the recommendation of the Department of Transportation.

"Our priorities have been consistent since day one--public safety, efficiency of traffic movement, commerce and keeping our entire region connected," they said in a release.  "While today’s announcement is disappointing, we look forward to conducting a detailed review of the DEIS, participating in the process for public input and encouraging our constituents across the County to do the same."
Meanwhile, Centerstate CEO President Robert Simpson said he was "incredibly pleased" at the outcome.
"For the first time since 2008, we do not have to speculate on the future of Interstate 81 in our City and region. Instead, we can turn our full attention to outlining strategies that will maximize the economic potential of this once-in-a-generation, billion plus dollar investment. As we have stated before, we believe that the Community Grid represents the best foundation on which to build our future. It represents an opportunity to jointly develop and implement a new model for civic collaboration, citizen engagement and re-development that places the needs of our institutions, our businesses, our developers, elected leaders and residents at a shared table with a shared goal of shared prosperity. However, we also acknowledge that there will be stakeholders that are negatively impact by this decision, which is why we are also committing to County Executive Ryan McMahon, Mayor Ben Walsh, Senator Kirstin Gillibrand, Senator Charles Schumer, Congressman John Katko, and our entire State Delegation, that CenterState CEO will be a partner in designing, innovating and advocating for meaningful mitigation measures that our region deserves so that the legacy of this project can be one that our region can look back on with pride.”  

Chris Bolt, Ed.D. has proudly been covering the Central New York community and mentoring students for more than 30 years. His career in public media started as a student volunteer, then as a reporter/producer. He has been the news director for WAER since 1995. Dedicated to keeping local news coverage alive, Chris also has a passion for education, having trained, mentored and provided a platform for growth to more than a thousand students. Career highlights include having work appear on NPR, CBS, ABC and other news networks, winning numerous local and state journalism awards.
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