May 16, 2012 Neil Benjamin Jr. Uncategorized
At the public I-81 Challenge held May 9 at the Oncenter, the study to determine the future of the road that divides the city took another step in the rehabilitation process by displaying thoughts from the May 2011 meeting, while also gathering more information from the more than 450 people who attended the forum.
There are five master strategies that have come to light. The first is a maintenance only idea, while the second would be to rehab the road and all bridges. The third is to reconstruct the road and replace the bridges. Another option is to depress the road and build tunnels; the last is to replace the road entirely with an urban boulevard.
James D’Agostino, director of the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council, spearheaded the event. He warned that the process is still in the early stages.
“Keep in mind that I-81 is an interstate highway and therefore must comply with a long list of federal regulations and requirements,” he said. “It’s expected that the federal government will fund a significant portion of the cost of whatever is decided. So ultimately, we must meet their requirements.”
The SMTC is overseeing the public input process for the New York State Department of Transportation, hence the Challenge. D’Agostino said there has been a ton of public input, and that the forum provided another chance for those who were unable to be at last year’s meetings to give their opinions. If you weren’t able to make it on May 9, you can still give your input online at theI81challenge.org.
The problem is, according to the SMTC, that the current structure consists of 124 separate bridge spans, which doesn’t meet current highway design standards. In the 1960s, physical constraints forced engineers to design the highway with tight curves, narrow lanes and minimal shoulders. From I-81 through the 690 interchange, the accident rate is 500 percent compared to the state average, according to a fact sheet provided at the forum.
Changes made to the road must adhere to the Federal Highway Administration rules and regulations.
So far, $6.5 million is set aside by the NYSDOT, while SMTC has $1 million for the project, D’Agostino said.
The plan now is to begin to develop more ideas for each of the five master strategies. Each will undergo a thorough analysis: it will consider the potential impact on costs, traffic, land use, pedestrians, transit, the environment and future economic development.
“This is a very hefty menu of work to get done,” Bill Engloff, NYSDOT’s project manager, said. “Our team expects that examining seven or more factors for up to a dozen options will require at least six months or more. We want people to understand what’s required for a project like this so they don’t become impatient.”
Engloff went into further detail. “Federal and state environmental laws and regulations require that all reasonable options be evaluated for their impacts. We know that a ‘no-build’ scenario is not a realistic option given the condition of the viaduct. In the end, we are required to fully evaluate it in order to establish it as the baseline.”
D’Agostino added: “We know that many people wonder, ‘Why is this taking so long?’ The short answer is: it’s an interstate highway and ultimately federal law dictates the process.”
He went on to say that a no-build scenario would include routine maintenance of the existing structure, and wouldn’t really address any long-term issues.
The viaduct portion of the road runs along the eastern edge of downtown, and it’s nearing the end of its designed service life. It will require either significant repair, reconstruction or a full replacement. The SMTC says this is a big community concern.
“Fortunately, we have a pretty good idea of what the community wants and what its priorities are,” Meghan Vitale, SMTC principal transportation planner, said.
The SMTC says that, based on traffic studies, just 12 percent of vehicles that use I-81 south of the city make it through the region without stopping, suggesting that diverting regional interstate through traffic to an alternative route would have a tiny impact on traffic volume on the road.
The viable alternatives, D’Agostino said, will be refined and analyzed and a formal environmental review will begin. That will lead to a decision of what can be implemented.
There were eight stations at the forum which outlined the background, purpose and the process of the Challenge, and also what the findings were to date. The stations explained what is going on now, and what will happen in the future.
A station called “Your Visions” outlined the almost 150 ideas received from last year’s workshop. Another outlined the possible future strategies, while another gave information about our current public transit, and to explore other transit options.
Station 6 showed the evaluation process for said future strategies, while Station 7 explored “What’s Next” The final station explained how you can stay involved.
Jerry Martin, a retired salesman, has lived in the city for more than 60 years. He was at the forum to gather as much info as he could so he can make an informed decision. His idea was pretty straight-forward.
“We need to remove the bridges,” he said. “They divide the city and they’re costly to keep repaired. Seems like they’re always being worked on.”
He said he’s noticed through his travels down south that the expressways that go through cities are ground-level, and that there are access roads on each side.
“Makes for easy on, easy off,” he added, while giving a solution: “Maybe they should re-route trucks to 481. The road isn’t a bad solution, especially for trucks going north and south. Maybe make a beltway.”
Dan O’Leary, a 61-year-old city resident, said he hadn’t come up with the perfect idea, but did suggest that a boulevard “sounds interesting.” His focus, though, was on the economic impact that changing the road could have.
“You want to generate economic activity,” he said. “You can build businesses right off it, and maybe that would bring people to the city.
“But downtown is the main concern. I’m really for developing the city’s core.”
Margrit Diehl, a 40-plus year city resident, freelance writer and member of Parents for Public Schools, said she really enjoyed the “easy-to-understand forum.”
“I’m learning a lot,” she said. “I came here to explore the different options for 81. Ideally, the tunnel idea would be great.”
She said it might add a little time to the daily commute, but that it would provide a little comfort and convenience that 81 doesn’t.
DeWitt Supervisor Ed Michalenko was among the crowd perusing the stations. His ideas were very to-the-point.
“Ideally, the best way for any metro area is mass transit,” he said. “Mass transit, a light raid — that’s the most intelligent option.”
If you have opinions to share, D’Agostino asks you go to the theI81challenge.org and give your input.