No one will deny that Interstate 81, as it wends its way in and out of downtown Syracuse, is a mess. Short on-ramps, confusing signage, occasional holes in the pavement—all are aspects of a highway that is nearing 50 years of age in a climate that would kindly be called challenging. Now the big question is what to do with a highway that must be tended to by 2017.
“Even though this seems daunting, it’s actually quite exciting,” said James D’Agostino, director of the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council (SMTC), the group overseeing the highway project, called the I-81 Challenge. “This is probably the largest process I have participated in. We are looking for a solution to last 40 years at least. We are trying to correct a mistake that was made 50 years ago, and make sure people have some input into the process.”
In that regard, D’Agostino and his group presided over the second public meeting of the project, held May 9 in the Grand Ballroom of the Pirro Convention Center, 800 S. State St. The first collection of public input took place over several days in early May 2011, when the SMTC gathered nearly 150 public ideas for the highway, reviewed them, and then put together the presentation displayed last week. Five stations outlining the five master strategies (as well as a public transportation display) filled the space, and representatives from SMTC, Centro and the state Department of Transportation stood at the ready to answer any queries directed their way.
Ultimately, all the official entities involved with the process are aiming for a populace that is in as much agreement as possible—tough in Syracuse. D’Agostino pointed to the contention that has raged around the Gowanus Parkway, which runs 6.1 miles from the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The highway has proved controversial since it opened 70 years ago; in 1996 the public demanded a tunnel option. While the state began a $680 million repair project in 2005, the federal government in 2011 announced it would no longer replace the roadway, in part because the Big Apple residents weren’t on board.
“We are shooting for consensus,” D’Agostino said. “Consensus makes securing federal funding that much easier.”
With that in mind, D’Agostino and his road warriors presented the following five options for the future of Interstate 81. Keep in mind that although the 1.4-mile elevated portion as it bisects downtown (and destroyed neighborhoods when it was built) is problematic, it’s not the only focus of the project. The I-81 Challenge includes all of Route 81 from its northern and southern interchanges with Interstate 481.
• No-build strategy (routine maintenance only). Doesn’t sound like much of a strategy, or even an option, for that matter. The annual spring-into-summer bitch-athon that is construction season around here will only become more frequent as the highway increasingly shows it age.
• Rehabilitate the road and bridges, especially the 124 bridge spans along the viaduct. This strategy would restore the current bridges and pavement to a “state of good repair” that would last for the next 30 to 40 years. Some parts of the I-81 viaduct might be widened or changed to improve safety, and some improvements could be made to the on- and off-ramps through downtown.
• Reconstruct the road and replace bridges. A reconstruction strategy for Route 81 would remove the existing viaduct structure and build a new viaduct within the general vicinity of the current highway. The hazardous (to say the least) Route 81-Interstate 690 interchange would be rebuilt and some highway curves would be straightened.
• Depress or tunnel. Have you ever traveled to Rochester and driven along the Inner Loop of Interstate 490? This is what “depress” means: a portion of the roadway stands below grade level. While some advantages include pedestrian and bicycle bridges spanning the highway, it’s tough to imagine snow removal along such a roadway. Still, according to the SMTC display materials, this option has received considerable public support.
• Replace with an urban boulevard. Sounds pleasant, doesn’t it? At the point where Route 81 becomes the viaduct (from Butternut to Adams streets), imagine traffic slowing as it exits the highway onto street level, converted into a tree-lined thoroughfare with sidewalks, bike paths and a 40-mph speed limit. Those 18-wheelers that strike terror into the hearts of commuters? They would be relegated to Interstate 481. Doesn’t sound like Syracuse, does it? Well, neither does a winter with less than 100 inches of snow.
Nearly 500 citizens attended the May 9 confab, and, like the first public meeting, the SMTC asked for written comments, which will be considered by the DOT during the next decision-making phase. The five strategies will be fed into a computer model, which will evaluate the options, including environmental and economic impact, in an 18-month process. Meanwhile, the public is still invited to chime in, at the website thei81challenge.org.
And lest the task seem daunting, remember that New York state engineered and got built the Erie Canal before there were public meetings, fancy diagrams and computer models. There’s no reason the same enterprising spirit can’t fix the mishmash created by a highway designed 50 years ago for traffic patterns that are just as old.