Public Affairs, Communications & Sustainable Development

Active Community Involvement Crucial in I-81 Debate

June 05, 2014 at 6:30 PM

By Nina Housman, Contributing Writer

What should be done with the Interstate 81 viaduct in Syracuse, New York?

There is currently a highly publicized public debate underway in Central New York as to what should be done to address the now aging Interstate 81 viaduct that effectively cuts the City of Syracuse in half.

Should it be replaced by a six-lane boulevard, a tunnel, or something else? What considerations besides engineering feasibility, environmental regulations, and financial considerations should be taken into account in determining its future?

Social considerations are important, such as growth, the well being of the existing residential and business community, environmental concerns, etc., but which ones are the most important and who decides?

These are only a few of the many of questions facing our Central New York community concerning what to do about I-81.

While these are questions that we must address collectively as a community, it is crucial that we are all well informed on the issues involved in order for us to engage in thoughtful debate and make an educated determination on how best to proceed.

In the rest of this piece I will lay out an overview of the major proposals to date and then go on to discuss the process for decision making and opportunities for input from people in the communities impacted by the decision. To put this piece together, I have attended two public meetings, reviewed the NYSDOT website and other websites of concerned organizations, and spoken with representatives from some of the organizations involved in the process.

While there were representatives on hand from NYSDOT to discuss the various options at a recent open meeting on I-81 at the Everson Museum on May 1, 2014 and an overview on the project was presented, there was no opportunity as an audience to raise overall questions after the presentation itself, although comments could be written down for the NYSDOT to consider.

At the much smaller and seemingly less publicized meeting on May 12 on lessons from the $716 million Gowanus Expressway project and the $555 million rebuilding of the Kosciuszko Bridge there was an opportunity to discuss the overall project and the many social concerns involved. To learn more about these projects, click here.

Some of the questions raised related to incorporating urban design criteria into the process, addressing the insights from the Syracuse Transit System Analysis, expanding the public role in the proposal development and evaluation process, getting more information on what housing would be affected by various proposals, as well as a question regarding the impact of traffic on local streets in the case of various alternative routes being chosen.

It would have been extremely useful to have had a group discussion incorporated into the larger presentation on May 1 as it was at the May 12 meeting. I hope such a discussion format will be incorporated into future presentations as the proposals are fleshed out and evaluated.

There are currently 4 major proposals being considered by NYSDOT, which will ultimately submit a final proposal to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for its approval. These proposals include:

  1. Rehabilitate the existing viaduct or create a new one. These options would cost between 800 million dollars and 1.6 billion dollars. There are 5 options.
  2. Street level options. There are 3 variations ranging in cost between 1 billion and 1.2 billion.
  3. Tunnel options. There are 4 variations. Costs range from 1.7-3.3 billion dollars.
  4. Depressed highway. There are 4 options ranging in cost from 1.5 to 1.9 billion dollars.

A fifth strategy to reroute the existing highway to the West through West Street was considered unfeasible and discarded.

As noted above, each of these proposals also have their own variations. For more information on the I-81 proposals and each of their variations, there is a great deal of useful information posted on the NYSDOT website, which you can view by clicking here

While there are comprehensive and clear summaries on the website as there were in the presentations that I attended, what's missing is specificity and detail.

Which structures might have to be acquired in which options? What other relevant influencing factors have been determined regarding the options so far? These are just some of the many questions that could, and should, be addressed.

Now to the process…

To date, two working advisory committees have been set up so far. A third advisory committee is being formed and according to the Director of the I-81 Project, Mark Frechette, is open to anyone who wants to participate.

The two working advisory committees are titled “Community & Economic Development” and “Sustainability.” These groups meet on a monthly basis. To find out who is on these two committees, click here

The third group, a Stakeholders' Committee, is currently forming and according to Frechette's presentation on the NYSDOT website, it is open to anyone who wants to participate.

To let NYSDOT know that you want to participate, you will be able to do so on their website. For a link, click here

Frechette states, in a presentation also available on their website, that:

"Our next step is to evaluate the alternatives to determine which ones will advance to the Draft EIS for further study and which ones will be dropped. We will screen the alternatives using three criteria: 1) Does the alternative meet the project's purpose and need? That is, does the alternative correct the problems of the existing highway? Are there opportunities to better serve the neighborhoods on either side of it? 2) How would the alternative be constructed? Do we need to acquire property? How long will construction take? 3) Is the cost reasonable?"

Some of these questions can be evaluated relatively objectively according to criteria determined by qualified experts. These criteria include such things as time required for construction or the cost of an alternative.

Other questions, such those involving the human environment and social issues, are more subjective and are influenced by social concerns that local residents, employees and business owners may have a more in-depth perspective on than NYSDOT officials, experts, and local municipal officials.

According to the NYSDOT website, the I-81 Viaduct Project has two articulated goals:

  1. Improve safety and create an efficient regional and local transportation system within and through greater Syracuse.
  2. Provide transportation solutions that enhance the livability, sustainability, and economic vitality of greater Syracuse.

According to the NYSDOT Commissioner Joan McDonald, speaking at the public meeting on lessons from the Gowanus Expressway and Kosciuszko Bridge projects, the Federal Government has to provide final approval on the proposal submitted by the NYSDOT. She also stated that significant community involvement in the decision making process is an important element in getting that approval.

Therefore, it is up to those of us in the community who are concerned about this issue to make sure that community involvement actually takes place.

Another insight gained from the public panel discussion is that getting local communities involved in developing and evaluating proposals, including those with diametrically opposed views, can help in finding a good solution that meet the community needs as well as structural, environmental and environmental needs. It can also help a final proposal to emerge in a timely way so that there is still money available for major changes.

Some elements of the process that I think will be vital to the success of this I-81 project will be for the NYSDOT to flesh out for the public the details of the various options and their costs and benefits, and to more extensively and effectively publicize opportunities for public participation in the assessment and choice processes for the I-81 Project.

It’s also vital that people who live and work in the areas that will potentially be affected by this decision need to take the initiative to participate on a regular basis in the decision making process to make sure their perspectives and needs are taken into account.

According to Sean Kirst, in an article published by the Post-Standard and, a meeting at Salina Town Hall in Liverpool on May 20 brought together people with different, and in some cases opposing, viewpoints on what to do about I-81. According to Sean, through creative discussion and argument, the meeting had a productive and cooperative outcome.

Important to note, however, is that the meeting wasn't sponsored by NYSDOT and was instead sponsored by the Moving People Transportation Coalition, which is convened by ACTS.

Those involved in the panel and discussion at the Salina Town Hall meeting included a developer of Armory Square, representatives of Save I-81 and ReThink81, an executive with Home Builders & Remodelers of CNY, the Liverpool Deputy Mayor/Village Trustee, and a representative from Urban Task Force/Moving People Coalition.

While the public discussion at this meeting did not come to a conclusion, a new idea emerged: using a piece of I-690 as a part of the solution. For a link to Sean Kirst’s article, click here.

This kind of intense, honest dialogue among people of good will, who may strongly disagree, is exactly what the NYSDOT says it's looking for. My hope is that that they will draw from the success of the May 20th meeting at Salina Town Hall in structuring future public involvement in the process.

It really seems the way to go in order to find a good proposal that reflects community concerns as well as the engineering, environmental and other essential considerations on what to do about the I-81 viaduct.

© 2014 SHORT REPORT. All Rights Reserved.


Nina Housman, contributing writer

Nina Housman (@NinaHousman) is a professional writer, editor, and trainer. She has a passion for working in multi-cultural environments and her interests include community engagement and neighborhood revitalization. She has also served as a blogger for the Syracuse New Times. She received her B.A. in English Language & Literature from New York University and an M.Phil. in Comparative Politics from Columbia University. Nina can be reached via e-mail at


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