Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney and Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner have both appeared on the Campbell Conversation program before. This is the first of three parts in which they participate together. Today’s topic: Interstate 81.
Grant Reeher (GR): It seems that there is a contradiction in the process on Interstate 81. On the one hand, everyone agrees that this is a huge decision for this area and its future. On the other hand, the making of the decision remains a bit murky, particularly regarding which views matter and when in the process they matter. How is this decision going to be made in the end?
Stephanie Miner (SM): Well, I think it is going to be made like all decisions in democracies are made: It is going to be murky and it is going to be messy, and everyone is going to be asked to have input, from federal officials, to state officials, to local officials, to neighborhoods and constituency groups. That’s why we have had a process where the county executive and I have had meetings where we brought in experts and speakers to talk about this, because ultimately, everybody has a stake in this decision. And that’s why when you say it’s murky, it has to be murky, because everybody has to have input in it. The goal is to have consensus at the end that we as a community can move forward with a transformational opportunity for our economy, for our community, for Central New York as a whole.
GR: But who ultimately says, “It is going to be this and not this”? Is that going to be the state?
Joanie Mahoney (JM): I think ultimately it has to be the state, because that is where the funding is coming from. When we first started, it was very unclear regarding the kinds of questions you asked: Who is in charge, what is being considered, how is it being considered, when is something going to happen? And in cooperation with the mayor and the state DOT commissioner, we have tried to open that up. I have donated county space so that all the scoping materials could be available to the public and have those questions answered. And I have asked that we not limit ourselves to cost being the driving factor until you give the mayor and me the opportunity to see if we could get our federal partners or our local constituents’ input on whether there is a willingness to pay for something better than we are going to get than if we make the decision solely based on cost.
SM: The process is dictated by the law, the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process, and we have expanded it to include speakers and to give people an opportunity. When you say who’s going to be ultimately making the decision – the state is. But the state is us. We elect our representatives; they are answerable to us. Now, if we are going to be silent about it, could a decision get made in the back room with nobody’s input? Of course it could. But that is not going to happen as long as we are all paying attention to it, and understanding the kind of importance that this decision has on our future.
GR: There are a lot of elected officials who have come forward and said they like a particular idea, and they have gathered quite a number together behind it. If it does become the case that there is a fairly large consensus of elected officials in this area who want a certain option, is it conceivable that the state is going to come back after all that and say, no, it’s going to be something else?
SM: It could always happen, sure. But then the political system will exercise itself, and you will see upheaval. And I don’t think any of these officials has a commitment written in stone. What they have said is a variation of what I have said, and what the county executive has said, too, which is, “Let’s look at all the ideas.”
GR: Will there be some effort to more systematically canvass the views of the people in the community about what they want?
JM: Yes. And we have put a website together encouraging people to give us their thoughts, and we do have a lot of that. It is being compiled and passed along to the state Department of Transportation. I am hoping that as this conversation continues – and I will do my part, and you are doing yours in this program – to encourage people to go to the county website. We can direct your comments back to the state DOT.
SM: I can tell you from a city perspective that when you have public meetings at 7 p.m. on a summer night and you are getting 50 to 70 people show up, that’s amazing. And the space that the county has opened up for people to go and look at it, so there are plenty of opportunities. Whether you are looking at the editorial pages, or discussions that people are having, or this show, it shows that people are conscious of it and talking about it. This decision is not being made in a vacuum. I think the next part of the process is to say, “OK, what are the costs and benefits?”
GR: The disruptions to travel during construction seems to me to be getting less attention than it might. Is there any understanding at this point that the construction of this project is going to be done in some kind of expedited manner, even if that raises the cost of it?
SM: Well, I think actually it’s just the opposite. Some of the options that are being discussed, they say take eight years. And in my experience those goals are never hit.
GR: Make it 12.
SM: Right. And so they are talking about that, and that is all part of this process of where we are right now. If you want to do Option A, these are the lands that are going to require takings, and then it is going to cost so many millions or billions of dollars, and then it is going to cost this much in terms of number of years of construction. Those are all costs; you could put a dollar sign next to some of them, and others you can put an aggravation sign next to them, but that’s part of the reality. Those are things that you are going to see talked about.
GR: There are road projects that I have seen in places where they are working on them 24/7. They are out there with the lights at night, and they are getting it done fast.
JM: And I actually think some of the bridge projects that have happened have been remarkably quick because of the new technology in building, the decking coming in in one piece. I think people are aware of that. This is a tremendous opportunity right now, and people should stop and think about the ramifications of the different alternatives. Then if we start to coalesce around one, ask what happens to the surface streets to mitigate any kind of traffic impact. But I don’t want to make a decision that is going to last 50 or 100 years based on you not wanting to be hassled. (laughs) It’s not as if money is no object, but this is something that is going to outlive Grant, Stephanie and Joanie. Let’s make this decision on the information in a better, bigger way than I think we sometimes tend to do as government officials.
GR: It seems to me that throughout the time that I have been in Syracuse, there has been an ongoing conversation in this community about where Syracuse is and where it is going, much more so than other places where I have lived. Does the I-81 issue tap into that broader issue and hit nerves?
SM: Oh, absolutely. I think we in upstate New York, and Syracuse in particular, have a history of accepting second best for ourselves. And we see that manifested in cynicism, and people always questioning where we are going, and are we doing better than we should be doing or have been doing. This is an option for us to say we won’t accept second best for ourselves, because it is too expensive, or we won’t accept second best for ourselves, because it may add three minutes of travel time to some people. What we are going to do is make sure that we make the best decision for the community, the city of Syracuse, Onondaga County and Central New York, that is going to put us in a competitive place.
JM: What an opportunity will be missed if we let the negativity and some of that stuff that we complain about drag us down to the point where the decision gets made by default and we end up not participating.
GR: I wonder on this point then, whether rebuilding the viaduct isn’t in a way kind of a give-up on that question, because you are just doing what you did before?
JM: Well, I have seen some conceptual drawings about rebuilding the viaduct and I don’t have enough information to say this can work or that can’t work. These conceptual drawings suggest that if you are going to rebuild the viaduct, raise it and make the barrier go away, so that it is not there at that level. Look at some of these very high bridges that are around the world. If you are going to rebuild it, are you going to rebuild it in a better way? I don’t think that rebuilding it is necessarily a failure; what is going to be a failure is if you put up with construction hassle for the next 20 years – that is, built little by little by little – and then we have exactly what we started with.