There is universal agreement that the Interstate 81 project in Syracuse is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. But there isn't consensus on whether the existing viaduct should be rebuilt, replaced with a street-level community grid or a tunnel.
While some elected officials opt to not endorse any of the alternatives, at least publicly, one leader has thrown his support behind the community grid.
Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh announced he favored the community grid option during the 2017 campaign. After he was elected mayor, he reaffirmed his support of replacing the aging viaduct with a street-level grid.
With the grid, Interstate 481 would become I-81 for through traffic. The viaduct would be torn down and the streets in the area of the elevated highway, such as Almond Street, would be improved.
The community grid is the least expensive of the three alternatives. The last estimate showed replacing the viaduct with a grid would cost $1.3 billion. Rebuilding the viaduct would cost $1.7 billion. Installing a tunnel with street-level improvements, the so-called "hybrid" option, would cost $3.6 billion.
During his campaign and since becoming mayor in 2018, Walsh has advocated for the community grid because he believes it's not only the best option for Syracuse, but it's the best alternative for central New York.
"Having a strong, dynamic, growing city does benefit the entire region," Walsh said in an interview following U.S. Rep. John Katko's I-81 town hall meeting in Auburn.
Walsh attended Katko's town hall meeting to listen to residents and stakeholders about the I-81 project. At the forum, there were supporters and opponents of the grid. Those opposed to the grid raised concerns about increased truck traffic in rural and suburban towns, the economic impact on trucking companies and the strain a spike in traffic may place on rural infrastructure.
But Walsh noted that these are already problems for Auburn, Skaneateles and other communities outside Syracuse. Trucks have long used roads that pass through smaller communities instead of the interstate system, whether it's to avoid tolls or to reduce mileage.
Walsh acknowledged it's a legitimate concern and that truck traffic in surrounding suburbs is a challenge that must be addressed.
"I'm here to say as the mayor of the city of Syracuse, I have a vested interest in the growth and the overall well-being of Auburn and other communities in the region," he said. "I'm willing to use my political capital to help address that problem."
Walsh added, "All that I ask in return is that our partners throughout the region understand and appreciate the concerns that we raise of how these options will impact our local roads in Syracuse just as they're concerned about their communities."
One reason Walsh supports the community grid is the potential economic benefits of the project. If a grid replaces the elevated highway, more properties could be added to the city's tax rolls. But that's not the only perk.
Walsh highlighted transportation trends, including fewer people relying on their own vehicles, cities being dense and mixed incomes.
"When you look at the options through those lenses, the community grid option not only supports those trends but it also happens to be the most cost-effective and the one in which the data to date supports is the best option," he said.
There are environmental considerations, too. With I-81 passing through the heart of the city, Walsh explained that it poses air quality issues. Critics of the community grid say it would create traffic jams because more vehicles would be on city streets.
Walsh disputed that claim. He said vehicles are already being "dumped" into the city because of the existing "bottle-necked transportation network" that leads to idling, traffic jams and reduced air quality.
"By incorporating a community grid, it allows for that traffic to distribute more effectively and equitably through the city in a way that reduces air quality concerns," he said.
The next major step in the I-81 project is the release of the draft environmental impact statement. The draft is expected to be released by the state Department of Transportation early this year.
Once the draft environmental impact statement is released, a public comment period and hearing will be held later this year. The feedback will help the state finalize the environmental impact statement and choose the best option for I-81.
"I expect what we'll see through the draft environmental impact statement is further support and substantiation that from an environmental perspective, the community grid is the right option," Walsh said.
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