Is the I-81 Tunnel study the end of the underground road? Matt's Memo
I traveled to Boston a couple of years ago to talk with their transportation experts about how they made the decisions that led to the complete revamping of major highways through the city. It's the project that developed the nickname The Big Dig. It was expensive, controversial and clogged traffic for years. In the end, the result for Boston is a better city. Traffic moves better and people can walk the town in areas that used to be cut off by a double decker decaying highway. A big part of the Big Dig is a tunnel that sits next to Boston Harbor.
The Boston experts offered this advice to Syracuse. The community should figure out which alternative it favors to replace the elevated section of I-81. Repair it, rebuild it, tear it down in favor of a boulevard or grid or dig a tunnel to carry traffic through downtown Syracuse. They firmly believed in keeping the process open for the best idea. Do not eliminate options before they've been explored in full.
Some in our town questioned whether a tunnel was feasible for an engineering point of view. They doubted whether it could be built because of the marsh like saline rich soil that is the foundation of Downtown Syracuse. That negative thinking never held water. If you can build a tunnel in Boston on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean you could engineer a solution to building a tunnel in Syracuse.
Community leaders who have raised the loudest concern about taking away on I-81 running through downtown asked the Governor to take a better look at the tunnel option before the State DOT advanced to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement that would ultimately select the state's favored option. The independent consultant released that study today.
They kept an open mind. They fully modeled four different tunnel options. They run on different tracks. They have different points of entry and exit. They have different construction methods and a range of timelines and costs of construction. They ultimately favored the Orange alternative. That option would take nine years to build and cost $3.6 billion dollars. A number of structures would also be torn down. All the tunnel options are extremely expensive. So much so they start to make previous alternatives like the tear down, plus community grid reasonable in its cost of $1.3 billion or so.
This study accomplishes something. It puts some meat on the bone of the tunnel question. It gives data that is worth considering. It also prepared the community to decide whether that type of cost is needed. Or, can we envision a promising future with a more affordable plan that would have less impact in the long term and less impact over the upcoming period of construction.