Five years from now, the Syracuse skyline could look very different.
Instead of an elevated highway heading into the city, the New York State Department of Transportation could construct an arterial boulevard. Or an underground tunnel. Or an iconic bridge.
Truthfully, the DOT isn’t sure yet what the new Interstate 81 will look like. They just know that something needs to be done to replace the existing structure.
“Bridges are designed to last for a certain period of time,” said Beau Duffy, public information officer for the NYS DOT. “The I-81 viaduct in Syracuse is reaching this point in time. Because repair and refurbishment of the bridge involves a significant investment, it makes sense, from a cost-benefit perspective, to look at potential alternatives for the future of the corridor.”
I-81 was constructed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Transportation experts say the structure, especially the 1.4-mile bridge over the city known as the viaduct, is reaching the end of its useful life.
“It’s an old piece of infrastructure. Something needs to be done,” said Meghan Vitale, principal transportation planner for the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council, which is working to educate the public on the issue. “I don’t want to say that it’s necessary that we replace it right now, but it is necessary for something to happen with the viaduct structure.”
Vitale said the DOT has considered several options for the reconstruction, including rehabilitating the current bridge, tearing it down and rebuilding it, tearing it down and replacing it with a tunnel or depressed highway under the city or tearing it down and replacing it with an urban boulevard through the city.
But Onondaga County Legislator Kathy Rapp, who represents the fifth district (parts of the towns of Salina and DeWitt), said the choice is likely going to be between a new bridge and the urban boulevard.
“We’ve really ruled out the option to fix what we have,” Rapp said. “It doesn’t meet codes and it’s unsafe.”
But Rapp said she just can’t envision the boulevard.
“A boulevard, you’re talking about a four- to six-lane road that has traffic lights, because otherwise you can’t do it – I just don’t know how that would work. I’m not averse to it if it works, but they’re not there yet,” she said. “The people I’ve been talking to, for them, it’s not so much the nature of the structure. It’s the fact that they want it to work and not create a headache for them every single day. If you can do that with a boulevard, great, but I can’t picture it.”
Instead, Rapp said she would prefer to see an iconic bridge similar to the Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston.
“[The idea of the iconic bridge] came out of a discussion at the Central New York Regional Planning board. We’ve spent the last year working on a regional sustainability plan. We won a million dollars from the state to put together a plan, and we’ve been working on it for the last year. We needed a long-term project that would have a major impact on the community. Because I-81 is such a huge thing, it became a conversation of how to do it and what would work,” she said. “We started talking about an iconic structure that would give Syracuse a sense of place. It’s been done around the country, but the Bunker Hill Bridge is in the Northeast, so it’s close by. It’s a good example. It seemed to be a win-win strategy to me. There are lots of models around the country. People have come to the conclusion that it worked.”
Vitale said the iconic bridge was a possibility.
“We’ve always said that any reconstruction is going to make the bridge look very different than it does today,” she said. “Choosing the strategy is separate from determining the aesthetics. The iconic bridge is a real possibility, but first we need a basic decision on what strategy we’ll go with and how it will function. Then we can go to the community again to discuss the aesthetics.”
The main thing the new structure must accomplish, Vitale said, is to meet the desires of the public.
“We’ve asked what people want to see, and the number one answer is economic development. They want to see something that’s going to bring economic development to the area,” she said. “Also, they appreciate that it’s easy to get around and it’s quick to get places, and people want to maintain that. So they’re pretty open to a variety of options as long as it does those two things.”
Indeed, the SMTC has held a couple of meetings on the subject trying to encourage public input. Vitale said about 500 people attended the last one.
However, all of those meetings took place in the city. As such, Rapp, in conjunction with Salina Supervisor Mark Nicotra and Cicero Supervisor Jim Corl, held a meeting May 1 at the Holiday Inn in Liverpool to get more input from suburban residents.
“When I-81 was first built in the 1960s the biggest complaint heard was that there had not been enough public input,” Rapp told the more than 100 people in attendance. “This time, Central New Yorkers have plenty of opportunity for input and you can continue to have input.”
James D’Agostino, director of the SMTC, urged local citizens to attend the third major public meeting regarding The I-81 Challenge, from 3:30 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 21, at the OnCenter Ballroom, 800 S. State., St., downtown. “Just drop in any time during those hours that’s convenient for you,” he said.
Discussions at previous I-81 meetings showed “no clear consensus,” Vitale said. Everyone could agree, however, that whatever decision is made, it will cost a pretty penny. Its final price tag would fall between a low of $500 million to renovate the existing viaduct to a high of $1.9 billion to build a 1.25-mile tunnel through the city. “It’s a lot of money any way you look at it,” Vitale said.
D’Agostino said funding such projects is “traditionally” shared by the federal government at 80 percent, state government 15 percent and local government 5 percent.
Several questions were raised about the impact of I-81 changes on businesses such as hotels which are strategically located near highway exits and entrances. Another citizen asked how I-81 decision could impact Syracuse hospitals and Syracuse University, both of which are located immediately east of I-81 downtown.
“University and hospital concerns are key,” D’Agostino said, “and we’re also hearing from emergency responders who need to get to the hospitals, and all of that will be looked at again.”
Nelson stressed that I-81 planners are closely examining how any changes will affect local businesses. “Economic analysis is a critical piece,” Nelson said. “We’ve made it a priority…We need more public participation because a lot of decisions need to be made.”
Nick Kochan, the deputy mayor of the village of Liverpool, asked D’Agostino and Nelson about the effect that traffic would have on ancillary streets if I-81 was closed. D’Agostino said that the computer modeling done suggested that the net effect on other streets would not be especially negative.
“I want to know how that computer model treated the New York State Thruway,” Kochan said. “Did they analyze the Thruway left as a toll road, or did the model also test the Thruway as a toll-free road? The Thruway is an underutilized transportation asset. We should be given the same opportunities as Westchester, Albany and Buffalo have received from the Thruway where local commuters can use the Thruway for free. The Thruway presents an opportunity to contribute to the traffic solution. I just want to make sure it does not get overlooked.”
Nicotra, who helped organize the meeting, has expressed concern about how any reconstruction of I-81 would affect suburban towns, particularly those north of the city like Salina.
“It’s going to impact all the north suburbs,” he said. “If people have to get somewhere that will take them through downtown, they’re now adding 20 to 30 minutes to their travels. They’re spending more time, spending more on gas.”
Nicotra was especially concerned about the effect on businesses.
“It’s going to have a tremendous effect on the town of Salina, whether you cut off 81 or redirect traffic into our town,” he said. “Many of our businesses here chose to be here because of ease of access. It’ll have a tremendous negative effect on current businesses and, no question, future business development.”
Nicotra pointed out that Salina is home to more than a fifth of the county’s hotels.
“Of all the room occupancy tax collected countywide, 22 percent comes from Salina. That’s about the same as the amount collected in the city,” he said. “It boggles my mind why the Syracuse chamber and others would want to do this and cut off the north. Any kind of convention activity, those hotels are certainly needed. There aren’t enough in the city proper.”
Right now, no decision has been made; the DOT is finalizing its corridor study, which will be made available to the public later this spring. In the meantime, Duffy urged the public to become involved in the process.
“We encourage people to participate in the public session to be held in May as well as future sessions during the project development phase,” he said. “People can also get more information about the corridor by visiting the corridor study website, theI81challenge.org.”
A final plan will be made soon, as construction will hopefully begin within the next few years.
“They have told us that they need a decision that’s ready to go by 2017,” Vitale said. “According to their estimates, that’s going to be the end of the useful life of the structure.”
“For a lot of people, I think they think they’re never going to do it. ‘It’s never going to happen,’ or ‘It’s not going to happen in my lifetime.’ But it is,” Rapp said. “And it’s important to make sure their voices are heard before it’s out of their hands and in the state’s.”
Russ Tarby contributed to reporting for this story.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.
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