A few central New York leaders hailed the study released Monday by the state Department of Transportation that determined a tunnel option for the Interstate 81 project in Syracuse is "technically feasible."
U.S. Rep. John Katko, who has urged the state to consider constructing a tunnel as one of three options for the project, said the recommendation by WSP, a design firm that was paid $2 million by the state to conduct the study, should be included in the draft environmental impact statement.
WSP endorsed what it called the "Orange Alternative," $3.6 billion tunnel-community grid hybrid that would take nine years to complete. The tunnel portion of the project would extend for 1.6 miles.
The state has already said it is considering whether to tear down the existing I-81 viaduct in Syracuse and replace it with a $1.3 billion community grid, or boulevard option, or spend $1.7 billion to rebuild the viaduct and alter its alignment.
While the tunnel-community grid hybrid would cost more, Katko, R-Camillus, said it is a viable option that should be considered.
"This is a transformative project, or it can be, and we've got to get it right," he said.
State Sen. John DeFrancisco echoed Katko's comments. He noted that the project would last for decades and there will be a great impact on the regional economy.
He believes it would be "foolish" for the state to pay for this study and not include the tunnel alternative in its decision-making process. He said the state should add the option to the draft environmental impact statement.
Owasco Supervisor Ed Wagner, who opposes the community grid option on its own because it could increase truck traffic on state roads that pass through his town, views the tunnel alternative recommended by WSP as a compromise.
He said it offers both parties what they want. For many in the city of Syracuse who want to remove the elevated highway and replace it with a boulevard, the community grid is part of the proposal. For those who want to ensure that the through traffic stays on I-81, the tunnel portion of the project would ensure that happens.
For Wagner, the benefits of the alternative outweigh the cost. If only the community grid is pursued, he thinks it would have a devastating impact on businesses and increase truck traffic in Owasco.
Not all central New York elected officials support the tunnel alternative recommended by WSP. Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner said the study revealed the 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," she added. She urged the state Department of Transportation to remove the option from consideration in the draft environmental impact statement.
The cost of a tunnel option doesn't faze other officials who pushed for its inclusion in the environmental impact statement. Katko, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, highlighted infrastructure projects in downstate New York that have cost billions of dollars. Most, if not all of those projects received significant federal and state funding.
DeFrancisco projected that the federal government would pay for 75 to 80 percent of the I-81 project. The state would cover the remaining costs.
"I don't think we should be considered chop liver in central New York on a project that's gonna last the number of years this project is going to last," he said. "It seems to me that the federal government has done many projects throughout the country and central New York should not be ignored on this one."