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      State DOT Commissioner participates in future of I-81 public meeting

      New York State DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald joined a public meeting on Tuesday on the ongoing debate about the future of Interstate 81 through downtown Syracuse. McDonald highlighted the process the NYS DOT has gone through up to this point, evaluating all of the different options. She says none of the options have been ruled out yet.

      After a morning meeting with local and state officials that was closed to the public, McDonald attended an afternoon meeting open to the public, where she answered questions from members of the community. Centerstate CEO's Rob Simpson asked about the potential construction, and if the DOT has figured traffic, noise and air pollution in their plans if construction takes place in a few years. McDonald said that will be a part of their study they begin once they have evaluated the public's opinion.

      There was supposed to be a vote today that would have determined whether officials could spend $32 million on that required environmental impact study. But that vote was tabled until August because the DOT wants to give more time for public input.

      McDonald admitted that back in the 1960's, when the highway was first being considered, the DOT did not do enough to engage the public in the conversation. Executive Director of F.O.C.U.S. Greater Syracuse Chuckie Holstein was part of a citizens group back in the 60's, which recommended that the new highway come in the form of an underground tunnel, something that never happened.

      "I woke up one morning and found they were building a bridge overhead for the I81 route, even the mayor [Tony Henninger] was surprised, because he called each of us and said 'what a surprise this is!'," Holstein says.

      Holstein said she was disappointed the public did not have more of a say in that decision, something McDonald agreed with at the meeting on Tuesday, which is why she says this time, they are going to make the public a key part of their decision making, and that interaction is critical at this point in the process.

      "The next two to three months is what's called a public scoping process, and I emphasize the public because we seek great public involvement to identify the various alternatives that we should look at," McDonald says.

      The vote on the study should come in August, after the DOT has weighed the public's opinion.