AUBURN — U.S. Rep. John Katko on Monday launched a series of town hall meetings to collect feedback from residents and stakeholders on the Interstate 81 project in Syracuse.
The crowd of more than 100 people at Cayuga Community College included Auburn Mayor Michael Quill, Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh, trucking company operators and residents from across the region. Katko, R-Camillus, opted to hold the town hall meetings as the state Department of Transportation is on the verge of releasing a draft environmental impact state examining options for replacing the I-81 viaduct.
There are three options for the future of the highway: Tear down the viaduct and install a community grid; rebuild the elevated highway; or construct a tunnel with street-level improvements. According to the last estimates provided by the state, building a grid would cost $1.3 billion, constructing a new viaduct would cost $1.7 billion and the price tag for a tunnel-hybrid option would be at least $3.6 billion.
Advocates for each of the options were present at Katko's town hall meeting. Representatives from central New York trucking companies spoke in opposition to the community grid. If a community grid is advanced, through traffic would be diverted to Interstate 481. Colleen Rejman, owner of Venice Trucking in Venice Center, said that change would add 18 miles to their trips.
"For economical reasons, I just think it's going to be a huge hardship on the trucking industry," Rejman said.
Bill Edwards, a Skaneateles resident, also criticized the community grid. He believes the grid would cause traffic delays, especially in and around University Hill in Syracuse.
"I can't see how anyone who has seen the corner of Almond and Adams (streets) on a game day could possibly consider the community grid as anything viable because it would be like that all the time," Edwards said.
While there were opponents of the community grid, the proposal also had its share of supporters.
Diana Ryan of Aqua Action CNY is a proponent of the community grid. Ryan dismissed the tunnel because of the potential adverse impact on surrounding businesses and historical properties. There are also structural concerns with a tunnel, she said.
Replacing the viaduct with the community grid, she added, could be an "economical boon" for Syracuse and the region. Building a tunnel, in her view, would have an opposite effect.
"I hear a lot of trucking companies. I know it's going to impact their businesses," Ryan said. "But it isn't going to take and tear their business down ... This really diminishes the tax base there."
There are other issues beyond which is the best option for replacing the viaduct. Whether there's a community grid, tunnel or new viaduct, truck traffic remains a challenge for rural towns outside Syracuse and in Cayuga County.
Venice Highway Superintendent Stephen Fedrizzi worries that shifting through traffic to I-481 will cause trucks to use alternate routes, such as Route 90 through Cayuga and Tompkins counties. The existing roadways, at least in Cayuga County, aren't built to handle a potential spike in traffic.
"Our infrastructure in Cayuga County is probably the worst in central New York," Fedrizzi said, adding that he's seen more flat tires in the southern end of the county due to potholes and other poor conditions.
Despite opposition from some in attendance, the community grid received a boost from a notable attendee: Walsh, who waited until the end of the question-and-answer session to address the crowd.
Walsh supports the community grid and believes it would be beneficial to Syracuse and the region. He acknowledged concerns about truck traffic in surrounding communities, but noted that it's already a problem.
"It's going to be a problem regardless of what we do about 81," he said.
He outlined the flaws with the other proposals. A tunnel would require a deep dig and a long ramp would be installed to access and exit the passage. There are environmental concerns with the tunnel, too.
Rebuilding the viaduct would have its challenges. A new viaduct would be taller and wider than the existing elevated highway. To rebuild the viaduct, more buildings would need to be demolished and businesses or residents could be displaced.
Walsh cautioned the audience against protecting the status quo.
"I'm here to say that I believe the community grid, understanding it's not going to be perfect, provides us as the city an opportunity to grow which, in doing so, provides opportunities for the region to grow," he said.
The draft environmental impact statement will be released by the state Department of Transportation early this year. After the document is released, a public hearing and comment period are planned. Once the feedback is collected, the state will finalize the environmental impact statement and choose an alternative to replace the viaduct.
The Federal Highway Administration must give its approval of the project before it proceeds.
Katko, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, emphasized the need to get the project right, "no matter the cost." He highlighted his efforts to bring attention to the project, whether it was advocating for a thorough review of the alternatives or designating I-81 as a high priority corridor.
He could play an important role in the project's advancement. Because it involves an interstate, a vast majority of the funds will come from the federal government.
"It is the biggest project in upstate New York's history," he said. "It rightfully deserves the scrutiny we're giving it."