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Interstate 81 Project in Syracuse Allowed to Proceed, But Viaduct Removal Blocked

Thu February 16, 2023 - Northeast Edition #5
Syracuse Post-Standard

A reimagined Crouse Avenue at the new I-690 interchange at Crouse and Irving. (Rendering courtesy of New York State Department of Transportation)
A reimagined Crouse Avenue at the new I-690 interchange at Crouse and Irving. (Rendering courtesy of New York State Department of Transportation)

A judge's order Feb. 14 has allowed work to continue on Syracuse, N.Y.'s $2.25 billion Interstate 81 project, but state transportation officials must also complete further environmental reviews before demolishing the highway's viaduct through the city.

New York State Supreme Court Justice Gerard Neri issued the decision in response to a lawsuit by Renew 81 for All, a group led by former Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler, and included suburban towns and others who oppose replacing the I-81 viaduct with a "community grid" of city streets.

Syracuse's downtown viaduct is scheduled to be removed in three years, and Neri's ruling will not immediately delay the project, according to the Post-Standard.

The judge agreed with Renew 81 that the environmental review of the project was incomplete. Among other details, he said the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) must account for traffic that will come from Micron Technology's planned chip factory in Clay, a Syracuse suburb, which is expected to bring a surge of population growth to the area.

Neri also ordered the state to study the potential for new air pollution along the suburban route of I-481 if the viaduct is removed and traffic diverts to that freeway.

But none of the potential environmental impacts would occur unless the viaduct is torn down, Neri decided. For that reason, he agreed to allow state contractors to continue work on designing the project and augmenting I-481.

Syracuse city officials, who had joined the state in defending the project, said the judge's decision could delay the project by creating uncertainty over the eventual outcome of another environmental review.

"The decision creates uncertainty and overrides a comprehensive and established state and federal regulatory process," said Greg Loh, the city's chief policy officer. "[Syracuse] is considering how it will proceed and will confer with [NYSDOT] relative to this matter."

NYSDOT Lines Up Impressive Team of Contractors

The transportation agency approved plans to tear down the viaduct and reroute traffic to I-481 last year, following 14 years of study that included a nine-year-long environmental review process.

NYSDOT awarded the first of several construction contracts in January. The state comptroller approved a $296.4 million contract with Salt City Contractors LLC, a joint venture. The team includes Richmondville, N.Y.'s Lancaster Development and Flushing-based Tully Construction, doing business as L&T Construction, as well as D.A. Collins Construction Co., in Wilton, N.Y., and Cold Spring Construction Co., from Akron. N.Y.

Neri's decision allows work to go ahead under the first three of eight contracts to be awarded for the I-81 project, with completion expected by 2025. They include improvements to the I-481 interchange near Lyndon Corners, work on the I-81 interchanges north and south of the viaduct, and rehabilitation of local streets on Syracuse's North Side.

Renew 81 Proposed Sky Bridge to Replace Viaduct

The Post-Standard reported that last October, Renew 81 sued to prevent the project from going forward, arguing that NYSDOT officials did not seriously consider alternatives to the community grid. They asserted that the state's environmental review had underplayed the potential for added air pollution, traffic jams and other issues if the I-81 viaduct was removed.

As an alternative, Renew 81 advocated building a "sky bridge" to replace the I-81 viaduct, an idea that state transportation officials rejected as unworkable, according to the Syracuse news source.

It was not immediately clear whether Neri's order would be appealed by either side. Officials at the state attorney general's office were still reviewing the decision Feb. 14, a spokesperson said.

Alan Knauf, the lead attorney for Renew 81, said he was generally pleased with the judge's latest ruling.

"We are pleased that Judge Neri has agreed with us that the state needs to go back to the drawing board and rethink this project in light of traffic, air quality and other defects," Knauf told the Post-Standard. "This time around, [NYSDOT] should come to the conclusion that I-81 needs to exist in the city of Syracuse."

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