Guest post by FreightWaves’ John Kingston
The highway and viaduct that now shoots truckers and others straight through the heart of Syracuse on interstate 81 might be no more under a plan making its way through an approval process.
Instead, drivers will need to circle the city on what is now interstate 481 if the state of New York ultimately adopts what is known as the “Community Grid Alternative” for the road.
After years of planning, the environmental impact statement was released last month on the alternatives to the highway and viaduct on that portion of I-81 that goes through downtown Syracuse. The viaduct is at the end of its useful life. There does not appear to be any disagreement over that fact.
The path the state’s Department of Transportation is suggesting the Community Grid Alternative. It would involve tearing down the viaduct that makes up part of the highway between I-81’s northern and southern intersections with the 481 semi-loop that does a half circle around the eastern side of Syracuse. (There is no loop on the western side of the city.)
“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,” the DOT said in the environmental impact statement.
The portion of interstate 81 between the northern and southern intersections with I-481 would still be considered an interstate, but it would be renamed a business loop (BL), designated BL 81.
That portion of I-81 from the northern intersection with I-481 to where the viaduct now starts would be BL 81, with some elements more akin to a local street but with higher speeds. As it gets toward the city, it would “slow down.” Almond Street, which runs parallel to the viaduct that now slices through downtown, would be reconstructed after the viaduct was torn down. That would be one part of the “reconstruction and reconfiguration of local streets in Downtown Syracuse,” according to the statement, seeking to “disperse traffic through the city grid, using the existing street network.”
Under this plan, I-481 would no longer be I-481; it would be I-81 and I-481 would disappear. The environmental impact statement lays out several improvements to I-481 that would be made, including reconstruction of both south and north interchanges (obviously necessary since the existing road between them will be different). The redesignated I-481 would have a minimum of four lanes.The EIS also spells out certain areas where additional lanes would be built.
And how much is this going to add to a trucker’s trip through what has been called the Salt City, due to its former salt mines? A cursory trip through Google Maps looks like the additional mileage would be about five miles looping around the city instead of cutting right through it.
Elsewhere in the statement, it said one of the goals of the project to replace the viaduct would be to “(m)aintain 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 between neighborhoods, business districts and other key destinations.” In other words, tearing down of the viaduct to be replaced by streets now in the shadow of the highway and routing traffic outside the city, similar to projects like the elimination of the Embarcadero elevated highway in San Francisco. (Of course, it took an earthquake to move that along). A blog called Streetsblog listed the Syracuse viaduct as one of the top 10 urban highways that should be torn down with more reliance on local streets.
There were 17 alternatives studied, including a base case of essentially doing nothing except some basic maintenance and improvements. Ten of the alternatives were rejected. Three versions of a new viaduct through the city passed the first round of review; three versions of getting rid of the viaduct also made the final cut. (Doing nothing is the seventh proposal under final review.) Among the alternatives that were rejected were several projects that involved tunneling, similar to the Big Dig in Boston. Cost was a key factor in their failure to progress further.
The environmental impact statement, which goes into tremendous detail about the traffic impacts of the various plans, envisions a return to the street grid in Syracuse as the prime benefit to the Community Grid Alternative.
While the Community Grid plan has the backing of the state DOT and, based on news reports, most public officials, there is opposition. A group called Save 81 has been formed. “Tearing down I-81 and rerouting it around the city could have profoundly negative economic and public safety consequences while also clogging traffic in Syracuse, which today is known as a ‘20-minute city’ where you can get anywhere in a short period of time,” the group’s web page states.
And the prospect of trucks carrying nasty stuff – a standard tool in many local fights – was raised by the group. Some local officials, the group’s web page says, “have expressed concern that an increase in big trucks hauling large volumes of trash and hazardous waste would pass through their communities if the state chose to tear down and reroute I-81,” the webpage said. (An email query to Save 81 had not been responded to before publication time.)
In particular, the Destiny Mall, which describes itself as one of the biggest in the country, is leading the fight against the Community Grid plan. The current route of interstate 81 goes past the mall and is located on that stretch that would become BL 81, but would still be north of where the viaduct would be torn down.
The public comment period is expected to begin in a few weeks. But while the project does have an estimated price tag of $2 billion, there is no estimate on when work might begin.