For some time, the New York State Department of Transportation has been searching for ways to improve the I-81, with many hoping to better unite Syracuse communities while also providing better methods of transportation. Throughout this process, many people have spoken in favor of adding a tunnel, which would route traffic underground rather than through an elevated bridge or community grid. Now, the department has released its options in a new scoping report, which shows that the tunnel idea still has potential.
Over the next ten years, a number of portions of I-81 will reach the end of their lifespan, including several elevated sections near downtown Syracuse. As a result, the area will need to replace, reconstruct or remove a number of these components at a significant cost to the area. The Department of Transportation’s scoping report is designed to find the option that is the most cost-effective, environmentally-friendly and more.
The Department of Transportation says that it won’t present its “preferred alternative” for I-81 until 2017. However, the scoping report shows that it has narrowed down its choices to four options: the first is a viaduct alternative, which would replace the elevated section of the highway. The second, a community grid alternative, that would tear down the existing viaduct and replace it with a street-level boulevard, directing traffic onto I-481. The third is the tunnel alternative, which would replace the viaducts with a tunnel, or a tunnel and an at-grade boulevard. Finally, the fourth option is the no-build alternative, which does not change the structure and simply makes necessary repairs. Because “scoping” refers to the early phase of an environmental review process required for major highway improvement projects, the latter was included for federal purposes as a baseline for comparison.
The decision between these options will ultimately be decided by the Department of Transportation and the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council, which must consider a variety of factors to make their selection, ranging from the expected amount of traffic to the increasing number of hybrid cars; after all, an estimated 4,500,000 of these vehicles were sold worldwide in 2012. But while the organizations still have some time before they announce their chosen alternative, area legislators seem happy with the progress thus far.
“I am pleased with the DOT including viable options for each proposal, including the tunnel hybrid option,” Onandaga County Legislature Chairman Ryan McMahon said in an interview with NewsChannel 9.“I think it is fantastic. I think the DOT leadership has listened to the public. Now, everything can be studied thoroughly. We can have an understanding of what the costs will be and that will lead to an easier decision.”
Mayor Stephanie Miner, however, seemed more cautious about keeping the goals of the project in perspective.
“This decision should not be made simply on what moves cars as quickly as possible,” Miner told NewsChannel 9. “We should focus on ensuring our decision advances the City of Syracuse as an economically vibrant, connected, and livable City by finding ways to utilize the existing transportation network beyond the viaduct corridor, enhancing connectivity between the University Hill, Southside, and Downtown neighborhoods, and being sensitive to community impacts—particularly to those living and working around the viaduct.”
The full Scoping Report is available at i81opportunities.org, along with a number of other documents about the potential changes.
Mayor Stephanie Miner said she hopes the goal of the project remains knitting together the Syracuse community – not just a method for moving vehicles around.