I-81 Viaduct Project Narrative

Portions of I-81, which was built in the 1950s and 1960s, are deteriorating and nearing the end of their useful life. Also, sections of I-81 do not meet current safety standards and are experiencing high accident rates. This is especially true of the 1.4-mile elevated section, or “viaduct,” near downtown Syracuse. To address these issues The New York State Department of Transportation (NYS-DOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) are starting an environmental review process that will guide the improvements to the highway corridor through Syracuse, ensuring they meet transportation needs and support long-range plans.

In 2008, the NYS-DOT) and the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council (SMTC) began a process to engage a broad cross section of community members for identifying, developing, and evaluating options for the future of the Interstate 81 (I-81) corridor in the Syracuse area. At a public meeting in May 2013

1. No-build (as required by State/ Federal environmental regulations)

2. Rehabilitation

3. Tunnel

4. Depressed highway

5. Reconstruction

6. Boulevard.

 The information that was presented about each strategy illustrated the analysis and consideration that led to the determination as to whether a strategy was feasible. It was determined that the Rehabilitation strategy was more feasible for the outer segments of the corridor, and the Reconstruction and Boulevard strategies were feasible strategies for the viaduct priority area. The I-81 Challenge Process concluded in the summer of 2013 with the issuance of the I-81 Corridor Study Report. The NYS-DOT steadfastly maintains that the results of the I-81 Challenge are conceptual ideas only and have no warranted bearing on the ultimate choice. 

In August 2013, FHWA) and the NYS-DOT began the environmental review phase of the I-81 viaduct project. The Notice of Intent (NOI), which explains the role of the agencies and their intent to prepare the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).was published in the Federal Register on August 26, 2013 (http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-08-26/html/2013-20727.htm). The NOI gives a basic description of the project, and invites the public and other government agencies to participate in the process

During the environmental study phase, the agencies will study alternative solutions to improve I-81 in the Greater Syracuse area and examine the potential environmental consequences of them. The study will be documented in a comprehensive document called an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS. The EIS will be prepared in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and also will meet the requirements of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). An EIS is required for actions that are likely to have a significant impact on the natural or built environment.

We are currently in the formal scoping period of the environmental review process, which affords the public an opportunity to provide feedback on the project’s purpose and need, study area limits, project alternatives, solutions and environmental issues to be studied. The goals and achievements objects on the I-81 Viaduct Project as stated by the NYS-DOT are:

Goal 1: Improve safety and create an efficient regional and local transportation system within and through greater Syracuse

This will be achieved by:

1) Eliminating structural deficiencies and substandard bridge ratings in the I-81 viaduct priority area:

2) Addressing identified geometric and operational deficiencies in the I-81 viaduct priority area and related interchanges.

Goal 2: Provide transportation solutions that enhance the livability, sustainability, and economic vitality of greater Syracuse

This will be achieved by:

1) Creating transportation infrastructure that is consistent with the long-range plans of the Syracuse Metropolitan Planning Area;

2) Improving bicycle and pedestrian surface connections that border the Interstate 81 viaduct;

3) Improving the visual and aesthetic character of the transportation infrastructure to minimize the perceived barrier between downtown Syracuse and adjoining neighborhoods;

4) Maintaining or enhancing vehicle access to the regional highway network and key destinations.

Six Project Alternatives have been identified by the FHWA & NYS-DOT those alternatives are:

No-Build: Federal and state regulations require the evaluation of a No-build Alternative in an EIS. The No-build is the baseline against which the potential benefits and impacts of the other alternatives will be compared. The No-build Alternative assumes no improvements to the viaduct other than maintenance.

Rehabilitation: Along-term program to bring the viaduct to a state of good repair.

Above-grade Reconstruction: Remove and replace the I-81 viaduct in downtown Syracuse with a new above-grade highway that would include modern design features.

 At-grade/surface Conversion:  Remove the viaduct and replace it with a surface-level roadway.

Below-grade/tunnel Conversion: Remove the viaduct and replace it with an underground roadway with a surface street above the tunnel would be constructed to serve local traffic.

Below-grade/depressed Conversion: Remove the viaduct and replace it with an uncovered, below-grade (lower than street level) highway. Local streets would pass over the depressed highway on bridges.

I-81 Talking Points 

1) The GPOC categorically rejects the no build alternative.

2) The GPOC Preferred Build Alternative:

  • De-construction of the1.4-mile “I-81 Viaduct” section near downtown Syracuse.
  • Reroute all I-81 through traffic (12 %) around Syracuse via I-481
  • Replace I-81 with a non-interstate, at-grade roadway that services local residents and businesses and reconstructs the pre I-81 street grid to move traffic around downtown Syracuse. This should include a pedestrian friendly reconstruction of West Street to calm the traffic and reconnect the near Westside with the downtown area.
  • Significantly reduce commuter vehicle traffic to downtown Syracuse and the University area by developing a robust bus rapid transit (BRT) or light rail transit (LRT) system that connects the downtown with suburban communities and provides park-and-ride options to bring people into downtown Syracuse.
  • Redevelop of the current I-81 corridor area from Castle Street to Hiawatha Blvd. with sustainable mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods with housing, retail shops, sidewalks, bike paths, gardens, trees and recreational spaces in a manner revitalizes both the old 15th ward area and the Near Westside.

3) Regardless of the build alternative the following social justice issues should be addressed:

  • The environmental review process should include a complete Health Analysis Study (HAS) that fully documents all health impacts of each build alternative considered.
  • Priority consideration should be given to the health and quality of life of the inner city residents of Syracuse in choosing and executing a build alternative.
  • Any alternative should include a negotiated Community Benefit Agreement.
  • Any alternative should repair the damage done to the pre I-91 street grid, and should include returning the West Street to a pedestrian friendly roadway with reduced traffic lanes, widened sidewalks, bikes lanes and covered bus shelters.
  • No neighborhood (e.g. Near Westside, Pioneer Homes, etc.) should be view as a “sunk cost.”
  • Any alternative should employ context sensitive solutions that respect and enhance the integrity of all neighborhoods impacted.
  • Any alternative should recognize the right to mobility of inner city residents who do not own cars and should provide mass transit solutions that give carless inner city residents the same ability to move throughout the greater Syracuse metropolitan area that the car owners enjoy.
  • Any build alternative should include a long term plan for transit oriented development that reduces commuter traffic to downtown Syracuse and the University area by developing a more robust regional mass transit system with bus rapid transit (BRT) and/or light rail transit (LRT) that connects the downtown area with suburban communities and provides park-and-ride options for commuters.
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