Syracuse’s relationship with Interstate 81 is dysfunctional at best. Motorists have been enabled for decades now by the aging, raised portion of the highway’s ability to get us from Point A to Point B in a matter of minutes. Traffic is backed up at the Syracuse University/University Hospital/ Crouse Hospital exit just past the Interstate 690 east split? Just move into the left lane and sneak to campus the back way by taking the next exit, for Brighton Avenue.
Keep turning right until you are heading north on South State Street to access East Colvin and ultimately Comstock Avenue, but be sure to check out those once-lovely homes crumbling in the lea of the highway. Or try this reality check: Park in the eastern part of downtown and try to walk up East Adams or Harrison streets to get to the SU Hill. Between trying to find a sidewalk or dodging dopes either in a big hurry or running the red light at Almond and Adams, it’s easily the least leisurely walk in the city.
Turn one way off the viaduct, or raised portion of the interstate, and you’re in the city, turn the other and you’re on the Hill. In between is one big noisy mess. Is this the face we want to present to visitors?
It’s not an overstatement to say that what happens with Route 81 as it’s nearing the end of its useful life will either make or break Syracuse’s future. In one corner are cyclists and pedestrians rooting for safe and friendly ways to get around the city, while in the other corner are business types who tout how easy Syracuse is to get into via the interstate that runs from the Canadian border to southern Virginia. Unfortunately, that highway also makes it easy to get out of the city.
The end of 81’s 50-year lifespan approaching, the New York state Department of Transportation (DOT), the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council (SMTC) and a Study Advisory Committee of business, education and community leaders joined forces in 2009 to get a plan together regarding the roadway. The first public portion of that effort took place last week, May 3, 4 and 7 at the Oncenter, where public meetings invited input, ideas and feedback from those who have lived with the highway every day, month, year and decade.
“What happens to I-81 represents one of the most important projects in our region,” said SMTC director James D’Agostino before the workshops. “We want as many citizens to attend one of these workshops as possible. This is how they can help formulate the plan for 81 that will best serve our city and region.”
In all, almost 700 citizens did turn out for the workshops, and nearly 100 completed the virtual version on the project’s website, www.theI81challenge.org. “In our view, the workshops were well attended,” said Mario Colone, a principal planner at SMTC. “On Tuesday we had close to 200, on Wednesday around 300 and on Saturday about 170.”
“We heard a lot from citizens who were impressed by the way the workshops were run and some people told us they were really happy with what they saw,” reported Nell Donaldson, a senior planner at SMTC. The group had divvied up portions of the ballroom into mini-seminar rooms outlining issues such as current traffic patterns, mass transit opportunities, noise measurements, environmental impact and, most interesting, cities where a similar situation existed and their solutions.
Those included The Big Dig in Boston (not viable here, or even in Boston, really), as well as projects in Cincinnati, Providence, R.I., Milwaukee and San Francisco (oh, so lovely). Where appropriate, large whiteboards were place next to exhibits, with plenty of Post-It notes so citizens could comment, criticize, praise or vent. If you weren’t able to get out to the workshops, the website version remains active for the near future, Donaldson added. Or check out the regularly updated blog, also on the website, for current events, and sign up there for the project’s email blasts.
While the raised portion is the main impetus for the project, it’s not the sole focus. Still, the project is aimed at the 1.4-mile viaduct, as I-81 wends through downtown, that includes 124 bridge spans, crosses 18 city streets and interchanges with I-690.
“In the other cities where such a project had to happen,” said D’Agostino, “public input was key to the public accepting the final decision. So we plan to come back to the public again, we hope by fall.” Noted Colone, “That will be our first attempt at narrowing the options that came through these public workshops.”
Donaldson added: “Then we’ll be presenting a final set of goals which we’ll then use to narrow the options down further.”
Obviously, this is an enormous undertaking, but one that is vital for Syracuse on a number of counts. Most important is public safety. “There is no imminent danger to the public,” said Bill Egloff of the DOT, “the roadway isn’t going to fall on anyone. But we have to have the planning portion done no later than the fall of 2012 with a target date of construction under way by 2017.
“The plan will depend on where the work would happen,” Egloff added, “not necessarily just the viaduct, though it could be confined to that portion of the highway. The force driving this project is the condition of the elevated portion of I-81.”
Citizens are invited to check the continual process of this project at the website and participate in more workshops later this year. “This is exciting,” Donaldson said. “Everything is on the table. It’s neat to see the distribution of information start to emerge. There are people on every side of the fence. We’ll start to digest what people told us and see what ideas bubble to the top.”
Public opinion: As the first set of public workshops about Interstate 81 wound down on Saturday, May 7, transportation planners geared up for round two, which will take place later this year.