NYSDOT considers options for Syracuse freeway

By Robbie Webber

Michigan DOT and Detroit residents are not alone in considering alternatives for an elevated urban highway. On June 23, New York State DOT officials released six possible options to replace the aging I-81 viaduct in Syracuse.

The highway has been the subject of intense debate for years, with users, community residents, business groups, and elected officials favoring everything from a tunnel to a street-level boulevard. The only thing everyone agrees on is that the road in its current form is reaching the end of its life. NYSDOT and the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council led a four-year study and interactive process to gather thoughts and ideas to guide the future of the corridor.

In early May, NYSDOT showed 16 options for what could be built in place of the viaduct. On June 23, they narrowed the choices down to six: three viaduct options and three street-level designs. A depressed freeway and tunneling were dismissed because of cost and possible impacts on the street grid. In addition to replacing a crumbling roadway, the project aims to improve access and connectivity for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists using local roads.

I-81 in Syracuse was built in three stages between 1959 and 1969. City residents and business leaders have always argued about whether it enhanced or hurt the city. By today’s highway standards, the road is too narrow, the curves too tight, there are too many exits close together, and there are no shoulders. To bring it up to current standards, a new viaduct would likely require the removal of several downtown buildings.

If NYSDOT chooses to build a street-level boulevard, the I-481 bypass to the east would probably become I-81, and the boulevard would become a state highway. Although other cities have removed elevated freeways with interstate designations, I-81 would be the first through-interstate corridor to be converted back to a surface road.

Many city residents and developers see a boulevard as an opportunity to reconnect areas of the city long separated by the viaduct and redevelop prime downtown parcels. However, communities and businesses that rely on traffic from the current configuration are concerned about a loss of property values without easy access to an interstate.

The public comment runs through September 2. Further information on the process and all materials from the June 26 scoping meeting can be found on the NYSDOT 1-81 Opportunities website.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.