NYSDOT chooses the grid for Syracuse freeway replacement

By Robbie Webber

After 10 years of community meetings, studies, and fierce debate, the New York State DOT has chosen the “community grid” as the preferred alternative for I-81 through Syracuse. The elevated viaduct had reached the end of its useful life and did not meet modern standards for an interstate. Instead of an elevated viaduct, the corridor will become an urban boulevard connected to local streets.

“Based on a balanced consideration of the need for safe and efficient transportation; the social, economic, and environmental effects of the project alternatives; and national, state, and local environmental protection goals, the Community Grid Alternative would be selected as the preferred alternative,” NYSDOT said in a laudable statement on the department’s website and the Executive Summary of the Draft EIS.

If the preferred alternative is built, NYSDOT would remove the elevated section of I-81 that runs between I-690 and I-481 through the center of the city. In its place would be a boulevard with a planted median, widened sidewalks, bike lanes, and a raised cycle track. Local surface streets would be connected to the boulevard and traffic signals installed. Additional traffic not handled by the boulevard would be dispersed onto local streets. What is currently I-481 to the east of the city would become the new route for through traffic.

The decision pleased Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh and many city community groups and institutions such as Syracuse University and the Post-Standard newspaper that had written in favor of the community grid in November. But the decision was far less popular with many elected officials in suburban areas. Many had pushed to continue providing a limited access highway into and through the city with a tunnel, but the DEIS said the tunnel would not meet the project goals to “maintain or enhance the vehicular, pedestrian, and bicycle connections in the local street network within the project limits in and near Downtown Syracuse to allow for connectivity,”

The alternatives have been hotly contested for many years, and SSTI wrote about the process and debate in 2013, 2014, and 2015. Syracuse is not the first city to see an elevated freeway come down, and it likely will not be the last, including in the state. New York will soon have to make a decision on what to do about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Each conversation is both a political and community drama and an opportunity to learn about “disappearing traffic,” the opposite phenomenon of induced demand.