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DOT I-81

Mark Frechette, director of planning and program management for the state Department of Transportation, answers a question at a press conference about the Interstate 81 project in Syracuse Wednesday. Standing behind Frechette is Dave Smith, DOT regional director. 

SYRACUSE — State transportation officials committed on Wednesday to continuing discussions about a potential increase in truck traffic if the community grid replaces the Interstate 81 viaduct. 

The state Department of Transportation held a press conference at the Carnegie Building in downtown Syracuse to answer questions about the I-81 draft environmental impact statement. The 15,000-page document released this week names the community grid as the "preferred alternative" for the project. 

For years, elected officials in western Onondaga County and Cayuga County have expressed concerns about the community grid proposal and the possibility that trucks would opt to use state roads that pass through rural communities instead of remaining on I-81. 

Under the grid proposal, Interstate 481, which bypasses Syracuse to the east, would become the new I-81. The existing stretch of I-81 through the city would be re-designated as a business loop. DOT officials said Wednesday that portions of Business Loop 81 — north of Interstate 690 and south of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. East — would remain high-speed highways. 

The decision to create a business loop came in response to concerns from business owners in the Syracuse area that a community grid may adversely affect their operations. But the new loop may not be enough to encourage truck traffic to use the new I-81 or even take the business loop through the city. 

Owasco Supervisor Ed Wagner, who is a member of the Save 81 coalition and opposes the community grid, said in an interview Tuesday that truck traffic is his main concern. He worries that more trucks will use other state roads, especially Route 38A that passes through his town. 

"I'm not happy," Wagner said. "I think DOT took the easy way out and I think that myself and other towns will do everything we can to make sure that if that's the option that we're protected."

Wagner added that a lawsuit is a possibility if he and other town officials feel that their concerns about truck traffic aren't addressed. 

David Smith, DOT's regional director, noted that the problem of truck traffic in the Finger Lakes has been an issue for many years before planning for the I-81 project began. 

"The thing that I'd like to say is we will continue to have those conversations and engage the communities to definitely explore opportunities," Smith said. 

At the press conference, DOT officials highlighted the changes to the community grid alternative based on feedback they received from businesses, residents and other stakeholders. Additional changes could be made following public hearings on the I-81 draft environmental impact statement. 

The DOT will hold a public information session on the draft statement in the coming weeks. More public hearings will be held and a 45-day public comment period is planned to gather feedback. 

The feedback, Smith said, will make the project better. 

After the completion of the public comment phase, the state DOT will work to finalize the environmental impact statement. Once that phase is finished, federal and state officials will issue a record of decision that will allow for construction to commence. 

The community grid outlined by the DOT would have several features. In addition to the new business loop, Almond Street would be reconstructed. The street would have two lanes in each direction and other improvements, such as bicycle lanes and turning lanes at intersections. 

The goal of the grid is to make use of the city's street network. I-481 would be improved to handle additional traffic with the highway becoming the new I-81. 

The community grid would cost $1.9 billion and take five years to build, according to the draft statement. 

"This project is a great opportunity for the community," Smith said. 

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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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