Syracuse University supports the construction of a community grid to replace the Interstate 81 viaduct in the city, Chancellor Kent Syverud announced in an email Friday.
Syverud sent the email to university faculty, staff and students. He explained the school's process for determining which of the three alternatives — a street-level grid, rebuilding the viaduct or constructing a tunnel — is best. He participated in conversations with state and local officials, as well as business and community leaders, about the project.
The evaluation of the project included other factors, such as the cultural, economic and social impacts.
"Given what we have learned through the process, it is now appropriate for Syracuse University to publicly endorse the community grid as our preferred option to replace the existing I-81 viaduct," Syverud wrote.
Syverud believes the community grid will benefit the university because of several factors, including access to the highway and University Hill, connecting University Hill with downtown Syracuse and the minimal impact construction will have on businesses and housing in the city.
The grid, Syverud added, is "best positioned to drive meaningful transformation across our community, and in the heart of our city."
The university's endorsement comes as central New York officials await the state Department of Transportation's draft environmental impact statement. The document, which will analyze each of the proposed alternatives, is expected to be released early this year.
State Sen. Rachel May said last week that she believes it will be released this month, but there has been no announcements from the state Department of Transportation about when the draft statement will be available.
The community grid is supported by several Syracuse-area officials and groups. Proponents say it will help the city — and region — by opening up more economic development opportunities.
If the grid is selected, Interstate 481 would become the new I-81. The viaduct would be torn down and street-level improvements would be necessary. Almond Street would become a major north-south thoroughfare through the city.
Few support rebuilding the viaduct, but there is a core group of central New York businesses and leaders who prefer the tunnel. An independent study found that a tunnel would be "technically feasible," but would require street-level improvements.
Supporters of the tunnel argue that it would be the best option because it would maintain I-81 as a north-south highway through Syracuse.
The cost of the project would depend on which alternative is chosen. The grid will cost $1.3 billion. A tunnel would cost more than $3 billion.
Once the draft environmental impact statement is released, the state will commence a public comment period and hold hearings on the report. After gathering feedback from the public, the state will issue a final environmental impact statement with its preferred alternative for the project.
Here is the email Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud sent to faculty, staff and students Friday:
For many years now, the future of Interstate 81 has been one of the most discussed and debated topics within the City of Syracuse, and throughout Central New York. This is because the I-81 replacement decision represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fundamentally transform the physical infrastructure that connects people and institutions, within and across our community.
To date, Syracuse University has not taken a formal position related to a specific I-81 replacement option. We were reluctant to endorse a specific replacement option because efforts to study and assess the implications of the various options—by New York State and numerous other stakeholder groups—were still in progress. Much of that work is now complete.
Over the past year, I have engaged with city, county, state, business and community leaders related to the myriad of factors that could potentially inform Syracuse University’s position on the future of I-81. Further, I have solicited and received thoughtful input on this complex issue from faculty, staff and students representing the Syracuse University community.
After careful consideration of the options, I believe we have met our obligation to rigorously investigate and evaluate the social, economic and cultural implications associated with each of the potential I-81 replacement options. Given what we have learned through this process, it is now appropriate for Syracuse University to publicly endorse the Community Grid as our preferred option to replace the existing I-81 viaduct.
It is my view that the Community Grid option most strongly aligns with the attributes and outcomes that Syracuse University previously endorsed as central to any I-81 replacement option. These critical attributes include multiple access points to the highway and to University Hill; a robust connection between University Hill and downtown; enhanced public transportation and public space options; environmental and financial sustainability; and minimal disruption to housing, businesses and jobs, both during and after construction. The Community Grid is best positioned to drive meaningful transformation across our community, and in the heart of our City.
I thank all members of the Syracuse University and broader Central New York communities who shared their perspectives with me, as the University carefully assessed this complex issue.
Chancellor Kent Syverud