AUBURN — CenterState CEO President Rob Simpson remembers the first conversations about the future of the Interstate 81 viaduct. The discussions were a decade ago.
Simpson has seen other communities advance significant infrastructure projects while Syracuse and central New York continue to debate the fate of I-81.
"Meanwhile, we have remained polarized and stuck," Simpson said during the Wednesday Morning Roundtable at the Hilton Garden Inn in Auburn.
The hour-long discussion highlighted those divisions. The panelists included Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh, a supporter of the community grid option to replace the viaduct, and Owasco Supervisor Ed Wagner, a proponent of a combined grid-tunnel option.
Simpson and CenterState CEO advocate for what's called the "Community Grid Plus." It's the grid with some mitigation measures to address concerns from the business community and residents.
The I-81 viaduct reached the end of its useful life in 2017. The state Department of Transportation is finalizing a draft environmental impact statement examining three alternatives for replacing the elevated highway: Demolishing the viaduct and replacing it with a street-level grid, rebuilding the viaduct or removing the viaduct and installing a tunnel.
Past estimates suggest the project cost will range from $1.3 billion for the grid to $3.6 billion for the tunnel.
Walsh acknowledged that cost is one of the reasons why he supports the community grid, but it's not the only factor. The impact on transportation is a major consideration. While supporters of the tunnel say a north-south highway is needed for through traffic, he noted that most of the I-81 traffic is destined for Syracuse. A smaller percentage of vehicles — between 10 and 20 percent, he said — is through traffic.
Syracuse could benefit from developing areas where the viaduct stands today. Walsh said when the elevated highway was built, it left "a scar," especially in a predominantly African American neighborhood that saw people displaced and properties demolished due to the construction of the viaduct.
For Walsh, there's an added benefit with the community grid: It would require the fewest property demolitions of the three alternatives. And it would allow the city to connect a thriving area, University Hill, with other neighborhoods that are separated by I-81.
"By removing the viaduct, it will allow us to continue that development," he said.
One of Wagner's concerns with the I-81 project is a potential increase in truck traffic if a community grid is built. He isn't alone. Other elected officials in the region, including town supervisors in Onondaga County and their counterparts in Cayuga County, have spoken out against the grid, in part, due to truck traffic.
Wagner recalled the discussion among Finger Lakes officials in the mid-2000s about trucks carrying trash from New York City. They successfully lobbied then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to include a provision in contracts requiring the trucks to use interstates.
The local and state roads that pass through Owasco and other towns, Wagner explained, "aren't build for this heavy truck traffic."
He agreed with Walsh that the community grid is the right approach for Syracuse, but he believes it should be paired with a tunnel.
"We have to have the community grid and we have to have the tunnel so we have north-south traffic without being impeded," Wagner added.
There was an agreement on the need to address truck traffic in the Finger Lakes. Walsh repeated what he said at a recent town hall meeting led by U.S. Rep. John Katko — that he is willing to partner with communities outside the city to combat truck traffic. Simpson also discussed the truck traffic problems, but thinks it should be dealt with outside of the I-81 project.
There is a lot of passion in the I-81 debate. Many in the city and even outside of Syracuse argue the community grid is the best option. Others aren't convinced and advocate for the tunnel. Few, if any, say rebuilding the viaduct is the way to go.
Despite being a community grid backer, Simpson doesn't believe there is a "perfect solution" to I-81. Each alternative, he continued, has positive and negative impacts.
What CenterState CEO has heard from its membership is they want progress.
"What they want more than anything is move us to a decision and move us past this," Simpson said.
That won't happen until the draft environmental impact statement, which was expected early this year, is released. A public comment period and hearings will follow before the state Department of Transportation finalizes the environmental study. The Federal Highway Administration must approve the plan.
Guy Cosentino, who moderated the discussion, asked the panelists if they have heard anything about the status of the draft environmental impact statement. None of the guests had new information to share.