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NYS DOT's Public Hearings Conclude; Here's What We Heard, What's Next For I-81 Viaduct Replacement Plan

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Scott Willis
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WAER News
Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh delivers public comments on the DOT's I-81 replacement plan at the Oncenter Thursday.

The public hearing portion on the state DOT’s latest draft of the I-81 viaduct replacement plan is now complete after dozens weighed in at two virtual and two in-person hearings this week. But the outreach continues next week and into September with neighborhood meetings.  Here's an overview of what we’ve heard so far, and what’s ahead for the proposed $1.9 billion community grid proposal.

The 60 day comment period kicked off in mid-July upon the release of an updated draft environmental impact statement. DOT officials say they made changes based on more than one thousand comments on the preliminary draft presented in 2019. Now, they have more feedback.

"I'm concerned about the current design and position of the roundabout near STEAM at Dr. King School," said Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh Wednesday at the Oncenter. "We cannot put our children at risk for decades to come. I request that you listen to the concerns on this critical element of the project, and present alternative solutions in the final environmental impact statement."

Senator Rachel May also spoke. She’s perhaps the most vocal of the region’s state delegation on the I-81 project.

"My suggestion is to locate the traffic circle farther south. A circle at Brighton Avenue, for example, where there is ample space, far from residences, and would allow traffic to disperse to the west, east, and south on relatively large roads. This could vastly reduce the amount of traffic passing by Dr. King School."

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WAER News
This rendering shows the roundabout near Dr. King School.

The location of the roundabout is a common concern among those who favor the community grid.

Those who want to keep a high-speed option through the city are calling on the DOT to extend the comment period. County legislator Deb Cody represents the towns of Salina, Cicero and Dewitt, all indirectly impacted by the project.

"Almost every town supervisor in the county has come out with real concerns about this plan. Maybe some more time for the towns to come out with their own studies outlining their concerns."

Town of Salina Supervisor Colleen Gunnip says their studies show the 41 restaurants, 9 gas stations, and 15 hotels on three exits would lose half of their value with the elimination of the viaduct and change in traffic patterns.

"The economic impact study that was included in the DEIS did not take into account sitting down with these businesses to put together the analysis. Therefore, we're asking for an extension of the comment period."

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Scott Willis
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WAER News
Town of Salina Supervisor Colleen Gunnip delivers her remarks.

She says the lost county, state, and federal tax revenue would total more than $10.5 million dollars.

One Syracuse business has its own concerns. Attorney James Meggesto says the Art Store on the corner of Erie Boulevard and Crouse would lose all of its front parking lot and its main entrance due to the new proposed exit from I-690.

"We are in the process of negotiating space for 35 additional employees. But this plan, as it is implemented, would severely impact this small business and its ability to expand."

The store is apparently one of the 140 the state DOT says it will need to acquire a portion of for the project. Four commercial properties will need to be acquired in whole.

Supporters of the community grid have said for years that the plan reverses a mistake made decades ago when whole neighborhoods were bulldozed to build the highway. This notion wasn’t lost on Paul Condon.

"You'll never convince me that the primary reason for the grid alternative is nothing other than an attempt to right a 60-year-old social justice wrong. Rebuild the Interstate 81 viaduct."

On the other hand, David Rufus urged the DOT not to forget what was done in the 1950's.

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Scott Willis
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WAER News
David Rufus is a 60-year resident of Syracuse and lives near the viaduct.

"Spend some time making sure our people that live in that community under that 1.4 mile viaduct have chances of having some success with this process. We lost 60 years ago. We don't want to lose again."

So where does the process go from here? First, the neighborhood meetings begin next week and continue through mid-September. The public comment period end at 5 p.m. September 14th. After that, DOT officials will incorporate the feedback in its Final Environmental impact statement due out by the end of the year. A record of decision comes in early 2022, followed by right of way acquisition. Shovels should be in the ground sometime soon after, but not necessarily in Syracuse. Regional DOT Director David Smith says the five year project comes in two phases.

"The first phase, a lot of the work will be taking place on 481. Near the end of phase one is when we start to take out the viaduct. It's important to realize that throughout the five year duration of the entire project, we won't have construction in front of any one place for the full five years."

The DOT will spend a half billion dollars and two years upgrading what’s now I-481 to become the new I-81 by adding lanes and improving interchanges. That’s so it can handle the detoured traffic during the closure and demolition of the viaduct in the second phase, followed by construction of the street level boulevard.

More information on the project and how to submit comments can be found here. An exhibit will also be on display at the Center of Progress building at the State Fair.

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 srwillis@syr.edu.