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I-81 open house draws large crowd, varied opinions as work progresses

A man in a gray suit talks with a man in  a winter coat and hat in a room filled with posters on easels and other people.
Scott Willis
A NYS DOT staffer listens to a resident at an open house at Clary Middle School Nov. 14, 2023.

The massive I-81 project continues to draw a variety of opinions as work progresses on the northern and southern interchanges with I-481.  A well-attended open house Tuesday night at Clary Middle School in the city’s valley section was further proof of how the project continues to capture the community's attention.

Marilyn Madison lives nearby, and has been attending meetings and open houses for about five years. She says the State DOT’s open house was long overdue in her part of town.

"We have not had one in the valley and we are very much affected by all the work they're doing," Madison said. "So they waited until they had begun before they decided to come down here."

She’s referring to the construction underway on the southern interchange with I-481, which has closed ramps. Madison also learned that project will include a new feature at the top of the East Seneca Turnpike hill at East Brighton Avenue when its finished.

 "The roundabouts! We didn't hear about those. But now, today, look! Roundabouts!" Madison said.

I-81 project director Betsy Parmley explains how the process works.

"What we showed in the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] was a preliminary design," Parmley said. "And so when we brought the design builder on, they finalized the design, and sometimes they come up with an innovative design. One of those innovations is the roundabouts on Brighton Ave. So that was not part of our original preliminary design. But when we reviewed it, we thought it was a great improvement."

Parmley acknowledges some of these details might seem to come out of nowhere. But she says they're fully vetted.

 "To be clear, the design builder doesn't have just full clearance to do whatever they want. We are very closely reviewing it and what we allow and don't allow is a very strict process, actually. So I welcome the feedback. Sometimes things might be a little unexpected, but we're here to answer those questions."

Four people gather to look at a rendering of a highway and surrounding roads.
Scott Willis
A NYS DOT staff person chats with residents about the I-81 southern interchange project with I-481 at Clary Middle School Nov. 15, 2023.

There were dozens of giant maps, graphs, timelines, and explanations in the room, and just as many DOT staff ready to listen to residents. Still, Marilyn Madison came away feeling a little disappointed.

"I don't feel much better than I did before I came, unfortunately, but I know there's a lot of people who haven't been as maybe as active. So it's good for them to at least see and be involved," Madison said.

Like Madison, Michael Gallagher has been following the project from its earliest stages. He's from Cortland, and was a frequent user of the I-81 viaduct to get downtown. He strongly supports the plan to replace it with a community grid, or what will be known as Business Loop 81 as it approaches the universities and hospitals from the south. Gallagher says skeptics need to re-frame the plan in their minds.
“If you think about it, people are used to cruising along at 55 miles an hour and then they slow down and they get to the other side and then they speed up again," Gallagher said. "It’s just you usually do it on a state route, going through a little town. If you look at Business Loop 81 in its totality and forget what it's part of, it's the same principle slightly on steroids. So I don't think it'll be like a completely impassable mess.”

 Gallagher says everyone will simply have to re-calibrate the GPS in their brains.

 “Everybody has a map in their heads, how to get from point A to point B around Syracuse," Gallagher said. "You have it. I have it, she has it, she has it, everybody has one and the map has not been updated yet because they're not using it. Now they may still complain about it and whine and moan and groan, but it won't be completely unfamiliar.”

Until then, there’s much work to be done. I-81 project director Betsy Parmley says they’re looking ahead to future phases, which includes the community grid portion.

 “So we have a little time to really finalize and tweak our preliminary design because again, everything in the EIS was a preliminary design, so we didn't get into those finer details. So we look forward to getting the feedback from the Community, working with the city of Syracuse, Syracuse University, Syracuse Housing to understand what they would like to see.”

According to the latest estimates from the DOT, demolition of the viaduct and construction of the ground-level roadway isn’t expected to begin until late 2025 at the earliest.

A chart with bar graphs indicating the timeline for the I-81 project.
Scott Willis
This chart shows the timelines of phases of the I-81 project and the pieces included in those phases.

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