Work on deciding future of I-81 continues behind the scenes

May 23, 2016

Work behind the scenes continues as the New York State Department of Transportation moves towards removing or replacing the crumbling Interstate 81 viaduct that cuts through the heart of Syracuse.

The community has been talking about this for years now -- what to do when the viaduct that brings I-81 through Syracuse comes to the end of its lifespan next year.

"This will be the biggest project in the history of the Department of Transportation in New York state,” said state DOT Commissioner Matt Driscoll.

NY State Department of Transportation Commissioner Matt Driscoll.
Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News

So, Driscoll, who is also a former mayor of Syracuse, says it’s bound to take a while to figure out.

"And I think some people are lost on that, because most people see the elevated highway, and people see the twists and turns of an elevated highway in downtown Syracuse, but it’s much bigger than that."

He says the needs of commuters, businesses, and the poverty-ridden neighborhoods that straddle the interstate all must be taken into account. So engineers are whittling down what is officially four, but really three, options. Doing nothing, which Driscoll says won’t happen; rebuilding the viaduct; building a grade-level boulevard; or digging a tunnel.

The department is still stingy with specifics, but project director Mark Frechette says that will change once the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) is released later this year.

"We’ve continued to evolve, to continue to build on each of those solutions -- traffic analysis, impact to businesses. That’s all information that will be coming out,” said Frechette.

Mark Frechette, project director for the rebuilding of the Interstate 81 viaduct through Syracuse.
Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News

Once the public weighs in on the draft EIS in a fall public hearing, Driscoll says he’ll make the final recommendation in early 2017 to the federal government, which is paying for the lion’s share of the more than $1 billion project. When construction will start, Driscoll won’t say, but he says he won’t let the project languish.

"I’d like to get this started sooner rather than later, so we can have a successful project and move on.”