Tunnel option for I-81 would take at least $3 billion, 9 years to build, study finds

A rendering of the tunnel option identified as most feasible by WSP, the independent firm that studied tunnel and depressed highway options for I-81 in Syracuse/ Photo from WSP study.

If chosen as the replacement for the current aging span of Interstate 81 that runs through Syracuse, a tunnel would take at least $3 billion and nine years to complete, according to an independent firm.

That's the lowest cost and time frame of seven tunnel options examined by WSP; the highest was $4.5 billion and ten years.

Of the seven tunnel options, four are considered technically feasible by WSP. The state Department of Transportation says it plans to carefully review the study's findings and determine how to proceed in the coming weeks.

“We thank WSP for conducting this thorough study related to tunnel and depressed highway options, which will guide our decision-making process as plans for I-81 are considered," Action Commissioner of the DOT Paul Karas said.

If you're reading this article on our mobile app, click here to see the study.

The DOT had previously conducted its own environmental review and after three years of study indicated a tunnel would no longer be considered. That changed earlier this year when Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered an independent study to analyze the feasibility of the tunnel, along with other options.

Of the four tunnel options deemed feasible, WSP's study teams recommended one in particular, dubbed by the study as the "Orange Alternative," receive further study.

The study teams recommends that the Orange Alternative be considered for further study as a viable tunnel alternative. The tunnel portion would be relatively short compared to other alternatives and the north portal would be near the existing I-81 and I-690 interchanges. This alternative also reconstructs and re-configures significant portions of I-690 to make better connection to I-81 coming out of its tunnel, which drives the cost higher than other alternatives, but provides more benefits as shown in the Alternative Comparison Matrix

The Orange Alternative would span 1.6 miles below ground and take nine years to build at an estimated cost of $3.6 billion, the study found. That cost would be split 50-50 between the below ground and above ground improvements, according to the study. It would also cost $10 million annually to maintain once complete.

The study did not analyze the merits of a tunnel option in comparison to a rebuilding of the existing viaduct, a community grid or taking no action. However, in regard to the community grid, the study found "community grid improvements would be integral to each alternative" and said it would not recommend pursuing a tunnel option without including community grid improvements.

WSP also analyzed two depressed highway options; the costs for those options ranged from $3 billion to $4 billion over a seven to ten-year period. WSP found these options would caused the permanent closure of multiple city streets, permanently divided the city, caused excessive traffic during construction and also would run into technical challenges. WSP ultimately found for those reasons a depressed highway is not a viable option.

Syracuse Mayor-elect Ben Walsh said he has always supported the community grid option or boulevard option, but said the time frame and cost to build the tunnel are his two biggest concerns.

"Potential impact on surrounding businesses surrounding properties are significant," Walsh said. "I've always looked at all the options that the least amount of property takings and demolitions is my preference the least amount of dislocation of residents and businesses is my preference and again I think those are all things that need to be taken into consideration."

Outgoing Mayor Stephanie Miner said the following in a statement:

This study reaffirms the previous work done by the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) and what many in our community have long suspected: a tunnel option would take nearly a decade to build and have an outsize price tag. A tunnel is not feasible financially and would have detrimental impacts on the economic and social health of our community. I would urge NYSDOT to remove the tunnel alternative from consideration in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and proceed only with options which focus on connecting the street grid, opening up more land for potential development, and improving the quality of life for Syracuse residents.
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