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It's being called a once-in-a-generation opportunity. The aging Interstate 81 viaduct in Syracuse needs to be replaced. 

There is consensus that the project will transform the region and boost the economy. But that's where the agreement ends. There has been an ongoing debate about which of the three alternatives the state should choose to replace the outdated viaduct. 

Here are the three options the state Department of Transportation is considering to replace the elevated highway in Syracuse: 

COMMUNITY GRID

I-81

The community grid option is one of three alternatives under consideration for the replacement of the Interstate 81 viaduct in Syracuse. 

The grid, at a projected cost of $1.3 billion, is the least expensive of the three options. The I-81 viaduct would be demolished and Almond Street would become a surface street — a "boulevard" — with bike lanes and pedestrian walkways. 

One of the biggest changes with the grid proposal is the route through the city would no longer be an interstate. Interstate 481, a north-south highway that bypasses the city, would be designated as I-81. Traffic heading north or south that now passes through the city would use the new I-81. 

There are other components of the community grid. Other street improvements would be made near where the viaduct is now. The existing Interstate 690/I-81 interchange would be reconstructed to connect motorists with the new grid. There would be a new interchange at West Street and an intersection with Genesee Street would be created. This would remove the West Street overpass, which sits above Genesee Street, and allow for Onondaga Creekwalk improvements, including a new bike path. 

Interstate 690 would be reconstructed from Leavenworth Avenue to Beech Street. 

A new Butternut Street overpass would be built over Genant Drive and the existing overpass, which links Franklin and State streets, would be demolished. The new bridge would feature bike lanes and sidewalks for pedestrians. 

To advance this project, the state would need to demolish five buildings. 

There is a lot of support for the grid in the city of Syracuse. Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh endorsed the grid during his 2017 campaign and continues to support the concept. Other central New York leaders, including Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter and state Sen. Rachel May, believe the grid is the better alternative for the I-81 project. 


REBUILD THE VIADUCT

I-81 viaduct

A rendering of what the I-81 viaduct would look like if it's rebuilt. 

It's the option few seem to want, but it's still under consideration. For $1.7 billion, the I-81 viaduct could be rebuilt. 

It wouldn't be rebuilt in the same path, however. The new viaduct would be widened to include four 12-foot lanes and 10-foot-wide shoulders. Like the community grid, it would require the reconstruction of the I-690 and I-81 interchange. Under the viaduct proposal, I-690 would be rebuilt from Leavenworth to Lodi Street. 

The proposal would require the the demolition of 24 buildings. 

With a new viaduct, I-81 would remain an interstate through the city of Syracuse. 


TUNNEL

I-81

The "Orange Alternative" would tear down the I-81 viaduct in Syracuse and replace it with a 1.6-mile-long tunnel. 

The state initially narrowed its options to the community grid and viaduct rebuild. However, members of central New York's state legislative delegation urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to fund a study that would examine options for a depressed highway or a tunnel. 

The study conducted by WSP, an engineering firm, found that a tunnel is "technically feasible." WSP recommended the "Orange Alternative" as the best tunnel option. 

Building a tunnel would cost $3.6 billion. Half of that cost factors in surface work that would be needed for the project. 

There are costs associated with the tunnel that the other alternatives don't have. Annual operating and maintenance costs would be $10 million, according to WSP's study.

To build the tunnel, the state would need to acquire 22 properties and demolish 12 buildings. It would take nine years to build the 1.6-mile-long tunnel, the study found. 

WSP identified advantages of the Orange Alternative. It enables connections to I-690, it's a short tunnel and the reconstruction of I-690 would address "non-conforming features." 

There are disadvantages, though. The tunnel would pass under private land and a multi-story parking structure for Madison Towers, an apartment building in Syracuse. It would impact the rail traffic and require the replacement of a railroad bridge at Burt Street. 

WSP added in its study that each alternative it considered includes "community grid improvements" to improve connectivity and traffic flow. Building a tunnel "would not work without reconstruction of local city streets," the firm explained. 

Each of the options WSP considered, for example, would include an Almond Street corridor to replace the area occupied by the existing viaduct. Almond Street, the firm noted, would "provide connections for local traffic to efficiently reach local destinations and to access the interstate highways." 

The tunnel proposal has been endorsed by state and local officials, including state Sen. Bob Antonacci and Owasco Supervisor Ed Wagner. 

Save 81, a group that wants to maintain I-81 as an interstate through Syracuse, released a handout Thursday that claims a tunnel would take "2.8 years" to build. However, that's based on an earlier state Department of Transportation study and not the most recent WSP report. 


WHAT'S NEXT?

The state Department of Transportation will release the draft environmental impact statement. There isn't a specific timetable for the document's release. The agency said last year that it would be released in early 2019. 

After the draft environmental impact statement is released, there will be a 45-day public comment period. 

The state will gather feedback and then finalize the environmental impact statement, which must be submitted to the Federal Highway Administration for review. 

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Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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