According to local traffic experts, I-81 is nearing the end of its useful life.
The highway was originally constructed in the 1950s and 1960s to provide an alternative to I-95 for traffic from Canada to Pennsylvania through New York state, as well as to provide a route for local traffic in and out of the city of Syracuse. Now, the roadway, particularly the elevation portion running through the city, is deteriorating, and within the next decade, significant action needs to be taken to repair or replace it.
Onondaga County Legislator Kathy Rapp, who represents the fifth district, spoke to the Salina Town Board Monday, March 25, about the various options to reconstruct the I-81 bridge. In addition to representing a portion of the town of Salina, Rapp is policy chair of the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council (SMTC), which has been researching the project for several years.
“By 2017, the useful life of I-81 will be over,” Rapp said. “It has to be changed.”
Rapp said the New York State Department of Transportation is considering two major options for the project. The first is to demolish the existing bridge and construct an arterial through the city. The second is to rebuild the existing bridge.
There is, however, a third option: to build an iconic bridge through the city. Rapp said the bridge could be a suspension bridge similar to the Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston. Such a construction would free up the land beneath, making property available for green spaces, bike lanes, pedestrian walkways and development. The bridge, she said, would allow commute times to remain similar to what they are now.
“We have an opportunity to think big and try to put something in place that people really want,” Rapp said.
Rapp said that some might reject the bridge idea as too expensive.
“But the thing is, either of the other alternatives would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 billion,” she said. “To build the bridge would be about $105 million. That doesn’t put it out of the ballpark.”
Rapp said studies and surveys conducted by the SMTC have shown that people want two major things from the reconstruction: to maintain the short commute time — “Syracuse is a 20-minute town,” she said. “You can get anywhere in 20 minutes. No one else has that” — and to avoid dividing the city in half.
Salina Supervisor Mark Nicotra was dubious the reconstruction could accomplish that second goal.
“They want to get rid of that divide, but you can’t bring those neighborhoods back together,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Rapp agreed that she wasn’t sure how the DOT’s plans would come to fruition.
“They’re picturing the Champs-Elysees,” Rapp said. “But I’m concerned it’s going to look more like Erie Boulevard.”
The state DOT will hold a final meeting in the middle of May. Prior to that, on April 18, State Sen. John DeFrancisco will hold a meeting with all of the stakeholders to discuss options, and Nicotra suggested a meeting in the north suburbs to encourage comment from local businesses and residents.
Rapp said there is a push to get started on the project from the state.
“The governor is encouraging [the DOT] to move faster,” she said. “He’s doing the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York and he’s looking for a corresponding project upstate. This is a good option.”
In addition, in 2018, Syracuse has a contract for a major bowling tournament, which will bring approximately 60,000 extra people into town for about six months.
“If this isn’t taken care of, it’s going to be a tangled mess,” Rapp said. “They are going to do something.”
No matter which option is chosen, the construction would likely take years. Because a final option has not been selected, there are no plans on how to reroute traffic at the moment.
Rapp encouraged the town as well as citizens to give their input to the SMTC and the state DOT.
“It’s not often we have to make a 100-year decision,” she said. “This will shape our community for the next 100 years.”
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.