I-81 Big ideas being cut short? Matt's Memo

Construction of current Route 81 through Syracuse circa 1956.

What's the best way to come up with a big idea? Start with a small one. Test it. Question it. Rotate perspective to see all sides. We have an incredible capacity to solve problems as individuals. That power grows exponentially when teams, groups and communities engage. Perhaps the biggest long term public works question for Central New York for the next half century is what to do with the aging elevated section of I-81 through downtown Syracuse. It is a problem calling out for a big idea.

The State DOT and Federal Highway Administration have just released their latest analysis of multiple options for changing transportation through the heart of Syracuse. The scoping phase wraps up this week with a public meeting detailing the recommendations that will advance to the environmental review phase. Several options were excluded including the West Side option, the eastern tunnel and the double stacked highway. They had all been given a good look after the community asked for consideration of a wider range of options. Neither of those options appeared likely to survive and advance.

What was more of a surprise was the elimination of the downtown tunnel and depressed highway options before the concepts advanced to more detailed review. There are three elements which led to those options being taken off the table. In some cases the cost of these options exceed a reasonable amount as defined by the DOT. In all cases concern was raised that access to the tunnels or depressed highway would cut off too many local downtown streets. And finally, another strike against going subterranean, the quality of the soil under downtown Syracuse. The DOT says engineering challenges would arise from the marshy, salty earth that lurks below.

The Environmental Review stage will get much deeper into all imaginable details of the project including traffic details, air pollution, environmental justice. Also, the impact on historic structures, emergency services and taking of property. That is where the hard facts will develop giving the community the best modeling thus far of how the ultimate solution will behave.

The urban planners I have talked with from outside the area agree on a philosophy for reaching a big idea. Figure out the best result for the community and then figure out how to get there. Envision Syracuse with a rebuilt elevated section, a street level boulevard, a tunnel through downtown or a depressed highway. Make the call based on the final result then do the engineering and find a way to pay for it. That keeps the outcome front and center in the decision process.

Cutting short the options before the fully detailed evaluation feels like it's short changing Central New York's shot at finding that big idea.


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