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NYS DOT's Revised I-81 Viaduct Replacement Plan Remains Committed To Community Grid, Includes Key Changes

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Scott Willis
/
WAER News
This is a rendering of the boulevard as it passes by University Hospital.

The state Department of Transportation is out with its latest plan to replace the I-81 viaduct in Syracuse, and it reaffirms their commitment to a community grid. The draft environmental impact statement, or DEIS, includes some changes from the preliminary draft introduced a little over two years ago. Project Director Mark Frechette says one of changes is a large roundabout at Martin Luther King Drive, instead of an exit ramp. He says it’s intended to slow traffic coming from the south.

"They're coming 65 MPH, so it's very important that we're reducing them down. This is a real traffic calming measure, a lot of signage 'Roundabout coming up' to really get people to recognize they're no longer on a high-speed freeway; they're heading to downtown."

I-81 as its known now will become business loop 81 between the I-481 interchanges.

"Those who choose to stay on Business Loop 81 through downtown will be on the grid for a little more than a mile. We'll also be creating a new I-690 interchange at Crouse and Irving that will become the new gateway to the University Hill area."

Frechette says the business loop will remain a high speed freeway south of Martin Luther King Drive and north of I-690. I-481 from the southern end of Syracuse to North Syracuse will become the new I-81, and Frechette says they will spend half a billion dollars to upgrade it. They’re especially focused on exit 3 in Dewitt.

"Traffic volumes have increased over the last 10 years in front of Wegmans on 5 and 92 and has created operational and safety issues with the interface it has with the current I-481. DOT will fix this issue as part of the community grid."

He says they’ll add highway lanes at the exits and lengthen the ramp to the freeway from Genesee Street. Frechette says they’ll also re-work the intersection of routes 5 and 92 at Lyndon corners.
The introduction of the revised DEIS kicks off a 60 day comment period, which includes a virtual public hearing on August 17th, and an in person hearing the next day at the Oncenter. A final plan is expected early next year, and contracts will go out soon after. Construction should begin sometime in 2022 and take about five years to complete.
(See the plan and make comments here)

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Scott Willis
I-81 project director Mark Frechette is joined by, left to right, Regional DOT Director David Smith, Acting DOT Chief Eingineer Nicolas Choubah, and DOT Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez.

Syracuse City Officials say New Plan & Impact Draft are Rallying Point

Syracuse city officials say the latest changes to the I-81 plan are a rallying point to get behind the project. State Transportation officials released the latest impact statement which includes changes to the Community Grid proposal, that came from public comments. Common Council Transportation Chair Joe Driscoll calls the release of the almost-complete, ‘surreal,’ because it’s been discussed for a decade. He urges people to take advantage of the public input process on this latest draft.

“The Common Council has raised its voice many times to support the grid option. The Mayor, the state DOT, the Governor, we had (Transportation) Secretary Buttigieg here, the President. So those who are reluctant to get on board, I’d encourage them to really make the most of this time and refine the grid plan rather than distracting us with any other discussions because it’s time to move forward with the rid. It’s time to get shovels in the ground.”

The new plan and impact statement contains many more elements than just the removal of the I-81 viaduct. And Mayor Ben Walsh says the D-O-T made efforts to address congestion issues that might be made worse by re-routing some of the current I-81 traffic.

“Many of the problems that have been expressed are problems that exist today and unless they’re addressed in the 81 process, will be problems after the 81 project. So, I see an effort to address some of the concerns we heard from our suburbs.”

For example: the proposal now has changes to off-ramps and other intersections near the 481 interchange in Dewitt; an economic review to address concerns of businesses to the north of downtown; and traffic-calming measures to the south of the city, where the current highway will end.

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Walsh and Driscoll made their comments with a rusting highway bridge abutment in the background.

Walsh adds the new report also helps with his goal of getting local workers on the project.

“They do have information about what jobs are going to be available, how many hours. Those are all things that we can use to input into our workforce development programs so we can make sure what the workforce needs to look like, how many people we need to be training. So that’s certainly helpful.”

He says his other main goals are to minimize impacts on those in the shadow of the highway, and to make the most of land-use in areas that will be freed up when elevate 81 is gone. The group Save 81 that opposes eliminating the highway through downtown, said in a release they remain frustrated for not being heard, and hope this latest public hearing can help. People can see the plan and make comments at: I81.DOT.NY.gov.