Community grid

A visual simulation of the community grid alternative showing the intersection of Almond Street and East Adams Street. The grid would replace the I-81 viaduct through the city of Syracuse. 

The state Department of Transportation identified the community grid as the preferred alternative to replace the Interstate 81 viaduct, according to the long-awaited draft environmental impact statement released Monday. 

The release of the draft is an important development in the I-81 project. Central New Yorkers, especially in Syracuse, have debated whether the grid, a tunnel or rebuilding the elevated highway is the best option to replace the aging viaduct.

Under the proposal endorsed by the state, the 1.4-mile viaduct would be demolished. Almond Street, which is positioned under the elevated highway, would be reconstructed. The new street would feature two 12-foot lanes in each direction and additional improvements, such as bicycle lanes and turning lanes at certain intersections. 

Interstate 481 would be re-designated as I-81. There would be modifications, including new interchanges and signs. Almond Street and a portion of Erie Boulevard would be part of a new Business Loop 81 designation. 

The project would cost at least $1.9 billion and require full or partial acquisition of 136 properties. Three businesses would be affected, but no homes would be acquired to construct the community grid. 

It would take five years to build the community grid, according to the draft statement. 

State Sen. Rachel May, a Syracuse Democrat, said the state Department of Transportation backs the community grid, in part, because it would cause the "least disruption to the urban fabric." 

"The grid has long been my preferred option, because I believe it offers the best opportunity to simultaneously redress historical injustices and help Syracuse become the engine of growth for the region," May said. 

The state Department of Transportation evaluated a tunnel alternative that was developed by WSP, an independent firm, as part of a 2017 study. The agency dismissed it from further study due to its cost — an estimated $4.9 billion — and an 11-year construction duration. 

State Sen. Bob Antonacci, who supports a combination of the grid and tunnel options, was briefed on the draft environmental impact statement Monday. He called the release of the document "the beginning of a long process" because there will be a public comment period and hearings. 

"I thank (DOT) for their past work and know there is still a lot of work ahead," Antonacci, R-Onondaga, said. 

The state Department of Transportation will hold a public information meeting on the draft environmental impact statement "in the near future," according to a news release. The agency will also invite feedback during a public comment period. 

David Smith, regional director of the state Department of Transportation, said the I-81 project is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Syracuse. 

"After extensive public outreach and careful consideration, we believe that the community grid best meets the project's objectives," he added. 

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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.