Scoping the future of I-81: Matt's Memo

Downtown Syracuse during the construction of current Route 81.

Did you know you are invited to be part of the I-81 stakeholders committee? That's part of the newly produced website package developed by the New York State Department of Transportation as the scoping phase of the I-81 project begins. There's a big meeting Wednesday afternoon where the community will hear the latest on the choices for redeveloping what is currently the elevated section of 81 through downtown Syracuse.

This is the start of an environmental review process that will take the hardest look yet at the details of the leading options. It will look at areas like effective transportation, economic impact, land acquisition and a dozen other key categories.

The last big public session focused on I-81 was in May when the I81 Challenge phase of the planning process concluded with the state focused on two top choices: a grade level boulevard or a rebuilt elevated section of highway. Leaders insist options like a tunnel or a below grade boulevard are still on the table. DOT materials still show an alternative West Side highway option as being ruled out.

The Save81 group of business and community leaders has been the most organized group taking a stand on the 81 issue. Salina Town Supervisor Mark Nicotra posted this commentary on the group's website. While he is to be commended for taking a leadership role in the discussion his conclusions about a grade level boulevard solution are premature. The commentary comes before any of the issues he is concerned about have been fully explored during the environmental review.

Nicotra wrote: "Replacing I-81 with a boulevard and re-routing that traffic will rob businesses along the highway of a vital revenue source, putting jobs and the local economy at risk. City streets will be flooded with more cars and congestion, meaning longer commutes and increased response times for first-responders during emergencies. More idling at traffic lights will lead to more vehicle emissions and air pollution. And towns outside Syracuse could be faced with more heavy truck traffic barreling down their roads."

There is no evidence that our local economy will be put at risk. There is no evidence that response times by first responders would change. There is no evidence local commutes would be measurably longer. Considering the typical absence of traffic on Syracuse streets that surround the current elevated 81 it would be a refreshing change to have cars 'flooding' our community, even if for the brief two or three minutes that would be added to a drive through the center of town.

Centerstate CEO President Rob Simpson called for an innovative, transformative solution to the I-81 question in a letter two months ago. Simpson's op/ed piece does not explicitly call for the grade level option. He does plead with the community to find innovative examples in other American cities and demand dramatic change through utilizing state of the art technology and concepts of urban design.

Where do you stand? Will Central New York develop a consensus best solution? Will the details produced by the transportation professionals be trusted as a basis for a sound solution? Is there still another solution ready to appear from the community's imagination?

The scoping session begins the next phase of what will ultimately be a large decision for the community's future.

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