I-81 tunnel proposal would mean changes for University Hill

CNY leaders and residents remain divided as underground route resurfaces among ideas for interstate viaduct's future.

Van Robinson remembers the first time he drove on Interstate 81 nearly half a century ago, however, not for sentimental reasons.

“It was the most harrowing drive I’ve ever made,” the Syracuse Common Council president said.

Robinson's sentiments were among those shared by about 150 local leaders and residents Wednesday night at Henninger High School for a public meeting to consider a tunnel to replace Interstate 81 in Downtown Syracuse.

“You can build anything but you have to look at what the impacts are.”
- Mark Frechette

The New York state Department of Transportation (DOT) has been seeking the public's input on how to address the aging I-81 highway infrastructure that runs north and south through Syracuse.

The DOT eliminated a tunnel proposal earlier this year that would have sent drivers underground. Instead, they narrowed the project to two options: the creation of an avenue that routes traffic around the city onto Interstate 481, or keeping the current I-81 highway in tact  but expanding lanes and ramps in certain spots.

“You can build anything but you have to look at what the impacts are,” said Mark Frechette, DOT's director for the I-81 project.

State Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse) requested Wednesday's meeting because an alternative to the already nixed tunnel proposal had emerged.

“This is a defined tunnel that would keep the traffic flow going forward from south to north,” he said.

DeFrancisco’s vision is a tunnel that would keep the path of I-81 the same: no re-routing on Interstate 481. Drivers would travel through the same Syracuse neighborhoods as they currently do and most likely would allow a street to be built on top of the underground tunnel, keeping the community grid idea intact.

The possibilities of maintaining a traffic flow and revitalizing the area where I-81 now exist appealed to other leaders at the meeting.

 “[It’s] the only option that includes essentially both because with a tunnel you get the traffic flowing through,” said Onondaga County Legislature Chairman J. Ryan McMahon.

The price tag for a tunnel option has been estimated at $3.1 billion, according to DOT documents related to the older tunnel plans for I-81. This projected cost is more than the expanded highway cost at $1.7 million and the community grid, or avenue plan that would remove the highway, at $1.3 million.

McMahon said the final cost to the I-81 project is still being determined and cost should be a focus at this point.

 “It’s amazing to me how a project like a tunnel can be discounted because of budgetary concerns when a budget hasn’t been set for this project,” he said.

The meeting brought a number of state politicians together who DeFrancisco said support the tunnel concept: Assemblyman Al Stirpe, D-Cicero, Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter, D-Syracuse, Assemblyman Gary Finch, R-Springport, and state Sen. Dave Valesky, D-Oneida, were seated alongside DeFrancisco. Opposite their table on the Henninger High School stage were a couple seats filled DOT representatives.

Following the meeting, U.S. Congressman John Katko, R-Camillus, who was in attendance, sent a letter to DOT with several pointed questions seeking more information.

The meeting's public comment section brought in more voices and opinions from leaders and residents across Central New York. 

Salina town supervisor Mark Nicotra said he supports the expanded highway version of I-81 because the avenue plan would cause businesses to lose patrons and influence trucking routes.  

“Truck traffic carrying everything including hazardous waste will be diverted to small communities to country roads to avoid additional travel times,” Nicotra said.

Another critic of the avenue plan, also known as the “community grid” by the DOT, was Aurora mayor Bonnie Bennett. She said her town has tried everything to reduce congestion already including crosswalks and curves. More homeowners are complaining about foundation cracks with traffic going through the village, she said.

“We are asking you to reject this community grid and 481 redirect because it’s going to add that many more miles,” she said. “It’s going to encourage them [truckers] to use Aurora as a shortcut.” 

For those in the city of Syracuse, the possibility of a tunnel may limit accessibility to Syracuse University and the University Hill neighborhood.

University Hill Corporation president David Mankiewicz said the tunnel would prevent streets that run east to west to have access to the interstate. Streets such as east Fayette and east Washington, he said, would be on this list because exit 18 would no longer exist.

“The traffic pattern to get to University Hill gets significantly worse,” Mankiewicz said.

Mankiewicz said he supports the community grid, or avenue plan for a number of reasons. One of these being a new interchange at South Crouse and Irving Avenues off Interstate 690 East, providing more accessibility to SU.

“Under the community grid, we gain highway access options,” he said.

 Downtown Committee of Syracuse executive director Merike Treier said she favors the community grid in part because 80 percent of the traffic coming in from I-81 is for people to work in the city of Syracuse or to go to the University Hill neighborhood.

“The benefit of a community grid is you are not relying on one solution you are relying on multiple, different ways to access a community,” Treier said.

A draft environmental impact statement with more information about the I-81 projects impact is due in January. This information will include a feasibility study to determine how viable it would be to replace I-81 with a tunnel through Syracuse, according to DOT officials.

As for Robinson, who remembers how I-81 divided Syracuse's central community when it was built 48 years ago, the tunnel seems like the best option.

“Tear it down, and if we have enough money to build a tunnel, let’s build two."

Re: 81 tunnel

Tunnel w the blvd is the most intelligent solution. Most communities that have been faced with a similar issue, Boston, Portland Or, have successfully executed with this application.

If we save historic buildings, unite the cities neighbor hoods, and provide a 100 year fix, then we have put proper use of $3-4 billion dollars to work. Otherwise in 40 years we're back to what to do with 81? This time in 2056 dollars!!


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