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Judge Lets NYDOT Plan, Not Build, I-81 in Syracuse While Lawsuit is Pending

Wed December 07, 2022 - Northeast Edition #26

An aerial view of Interstates 81 and 690 in Syracuse. (Photo courtesy of
An aerial view of Interstates 81 and 690 in Syracuse. (Photo courtesy of

A New York State Supreme Court judge on Dec. 5 modified his earlier injunction halting work on the Interstate 81 project in Syracuse to allow state officials to do paperwork necessary to award the first construction contract for the $2.25 billion project.

But the order from Justice Gerard Neri still prohibits the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) from doing any physical work on the highway until a lawsuit aimed at blocking the I-81 project is decided., an online news source, reported that attorneys for NYSDOT said the latest decision could save taxpayers "tens of millions" of dollars that would be at risk if the agency misses a Jan. 14 deadline to complete the first contract.

Lawyers for Renew 81 for All, the group that sued to stop the I-81 project in its current form, did not object to NYSDOT continuing its planning so long as no physical work is being done.

In a ruling from the bench, Neri changed his temporary restraining order of Nov. 10 that prohibited any work — including paperwork — from going ahead at least until the lawsuit returns to court in January.

Specifically, his pronouncement said NYSDOT "may undertake engineering, design, contract review, respond to questions, ensure that bonding and insurance requirements are met, but are prohibited from undertaking any on-the-ground changes for the project until further order of the Court."

Renew 81, led by former Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler, is fighting NYSDOT plans to replace the I-81 viaduct through Syracuse with a street-level community grid. The group claims the plan would increase pollution and traffic jams, among other problems, and advocates replacing the viaduct or building a "sky bridge" through the city.

NYSDOT approved the community grid plan earlier this year after 14 years of study, according to

At an upcoming Jan. 12 hearing, lawyers for Renew 81 will present oral arguments aimed at persuading Neri to nullify New York's environmental review of the community grid plan and to require the state to "proceed with an alternative.” NYSDOT will argue that Renew 81′s case should be dismissed.

The Syracuse news source reported that the first of eight contracts for work on the I-81 project is due to be awarded by Jan. 14, according to Meredith Lee-Clark, an assistant attorney general representing NYSDOT. Missing that deadline would be costly, she told Neri, adding that the state would lose months of work and millions of dollars if it were forced to rebid the contract or award it to the second-choice bidder.

On the other hand, Lee-Clark noted if the state loses the Renew 81 lawsuit and must nullify the contract after signing it, NYSDOT would only be liable to pay the contractor for work done to that point. State officials told no physical work is scheduled to start on the I-81 project until at least March 15, 2023.

Neri also indicated that he would allow the city of Syracuse to join the lawsuit as an interested party on the side of the state.

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