Groups raise environmental concerns for I-81, call for transformative solution

Many factors and alternative options are under consideration for the future of the I-81 highway.

As the environmental review process proceeds, state officials continue to deliberate potential alternatives for the future of Interstate 81 in Syracuse. 

The elevated 1.4 mile-long portion of the highway near downtown Syracuse is approaching the end of its useful life in 2017, according to the state Department of Transportation, which started the review process last August. 

Many interest groups have voiced their concerns for the highway’s future, including the Moving People Transportation Coalition, which calls for a more transformative option for I-81.

“No decision is more important to the future of Syracuse than this. We need to make it right.”
-- Barry Lentz

“It’s not just the bees, the trees, the birds and the bears,” said coalition member Barry Lentz. “We’re not building a highway through a forest.”

Lentz, a longtime resident of the Westcott area in Syracuse, describes the purpose of the coalition to propose a solution to I-81 that focuses on moving people, not cars.  The coalition calls for a more comprehensive approach to the problem that incorporates what Lentz calls a “robust build-out of mass transit” and evaluates livability, sustainability and economic vitality.

All factors considered with appropriate screening, Lentz said the obvious solution is a street-level alternative.

“We could see a huge spur of economic development, promotion of pedestrian and bike traffic and mass transit,” he said.

Like Lentz, coalition member Peter King points to an expansion of public transportation as part of the I-81 solution. King, an undergraduate student at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said the Department of Transportation (DOT) is largely overlooking air pollution in the process.

“The ground-level alternative sounds like a good idea but there’s still a lot of cars,” King said. “I’m very impressed with the DOT, but the one thing they haven’t done is integrated transit into the question.”

There are currently six alternatives being evaluated for determination to be included in an official Environmental Impact Statement, but that number may change according to the DOT. Spokesman Gene Cilento said those options include three reconstructions of the existing viaduct, three variations of a street-level boulevard, and a “no build” option as a baseline measure.

“A lot still has to be determined,” Cilento said. “There’s pros and cons for everything.”

The project is currently in its scoping phase, in which the DOT, along with the Federal Highway Administration, is compiling data and comments from the public to determine which options will be published in the final scoping report. Those chosen options will then be further assessed in a formal Environmental Impact Statement in accordance with state and federal regulations.

Cilento cited several environmental factors that the project must consider, including surface waters, general ecology and wildlife and historical and cultural landmarks. Traffic, air noise, energy, and pollution are also being evaluated, he said.

“It’s not a simple thing,” Cilento said. “It’s a huge effort to sort all this out and make predictions for however long it takes.”

In the scoping phase, the DOT has already started to narrow down the options that will be recommended for further study. So far, two alternatives, calling for a sunken roadway or a tunnel, have been recommended to be eliminated to due a combination of cost and construction factors, according to the DOT.

Cilento said that he hopes the final scoping report will be ready by the end of this year. He points to potential societal impacts that have further complicated the decision.

“You have to look at community cohesion, changing traffic patterns and public safety and health,” he said. “There’s also the schools and emergency response teams to consider.”

As for the Syracuse residents affected by the future of I-81, Peggy Chase, a democratic Onondaga County legislator for the 9th district, says there seems to be no common consensus among constituents. She has been regularly attending the DOT-held scoping meetings throughout the process to gather community input.

“Is there a good option for this? None of them at this point seem perfect,” said Chase, a resident of the northeast end of the city. Like Lentz, she agrees that there is more to evaluating “environmental impact” than just the tangible factors.

“When you’re looking at environmental impact, it’s not just the quality of the soil,” Chase said. “It’s the quality of life to the people that are living around there.”

These factors combined are why Lentz said he believes anyone who cares about the community has to care about I-81.

“No decision is more important to the future of Syracuse than this,” Lentz argued. “We need to make it right.”


Please tear down the 81 overpass, recycle the steel, and allow thru traffic to pass thru downtown Syracuse on way to points North, East, and West. Dismantle all One-Way roads. Make the speed limit 10-20 miles an hour. Install a HOV lane on Salina and Erie-a lane for two or more people at 30 miles and hour--in the middle lane. Build a light rail (down Salina and Erie, Armory, and thru the University district) Let's stimulate local business and heritage. Let's dismantle the ugly fowl car culture and the monstrosity that is 81. And make some streets pedestrian only. and let's have bus routes in every neighborhood that shuttle directly to the farmer's market. The Good Food Bus. It should be painted green with a cornucopia of fruit and veggies and nuts. The bus should cost 2-3 dollars and/or allow food stamps.

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