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New York State Judge Halts Work On Interstate 81 Project in Syracuse

Wed November 16, 2022 - Northeast Edition
CNYCentral.com


In bringing the action, Renew 81 cited the state’s new “Green Amendment,” which supports a right to clean air, water and a healthful environment. It claims NYSDOT did not follow its own regulations in the environmental review of the Community Grid option for the future of I-81, CNY Central noted. (Photo courtesy of Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council)
In bringing the action, Renew 81 cited the state’s new “Green Amendment,” which supports a right to clean air, water and a healthful environment. It claims NYSDOT did not follow its own regulations in the environmental review of the Community Grid option for the future of I-81, CNY Central noted. (Photo courtesy of Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council)

A New York State Supreme Court judge on Nov. 10 put a temporary stop to the beginning of construction on a new Interstate 81 project through the heart of Syracuse.

CNYCentral.com, the online news service of WSTM-TV in Syracuse, reported that Judge Gerard Neri approved an order that keeps the state from starting the more than $2 billion building effort, as well as awarding design or build contracts, or taking other action to move forward with the massive project.

The order was issued after a group called Renew 81 for All brought a lawsuit against the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) to halt the project. The group is led by former Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler, Onondaga County Legislator Charles Garland, and union leader Ann Marie Taliercio.

The nearby towns of Dewitt, Salina, and Tully also have joined the plaintiffs in bringing the action.

In bringing the action, Renew 81 cited the state's new "Green Amendment," which supports a right to clean air, water and a healthful environment. It claims NYSDOT did not follow its own regulations in the environmental review of the Community Grid option for the future of I-81, CNY Central noted. The group also alleges the state did not give a hard look at a range of alternatives for the project.

A Rochester law firm filed the petition for the group on Sept. 30, saying, "NYSDOT failed to recognize and mitigate the myriad ways the project will harm the city of Syracuse, city residents and residents of the surrounding communities."

Renew 81 does not account for the 14 years of public meetings, extensive engineering and traffic studies that led the state and federal government to reach the Community Grid as the preferred alternative, according to the Syracuse news source.

The state's filing in the matter specifically addresses Renew 81's notion that a proposed Harriet Tubman sky bridge over the city's downtown was not thoroughly considered.

Mark Frechette, the NYSDOT project engineer on the I-81 replacement, told CNYCentral.com a bridge like that would require more city properties to be taken, cost more to maintain and lead to a much higher cost for the overall project.

Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh also weighed in on the order the evening following Judge Neri's ruling.

"The preliminary injunction is another unnecessary delay to progress on the Interstate 81 project," Walsh said in a statement. "It risks a setback to local people who need the jobs and opportunity that the $2 billion-plus infrastructure investment will create. The project has undergone a rigorous multi-year state review and is authorized by a federal Record of Decision. It should continue to move ahead, and I look forward to the state's response to the judge's ruling.

"[Syracuse] is focused on working with [NYSDOT] and local stakeholders to achieve the full benefits of the Community Grid alternative. We've also worked shoulder to shoulder with local, state, and federal partners to make sure local residents get the training and preparation they need to build careers."

It is currently unclear whether NYSDOT will file an appeal, according to CNYCentral.com. A spokesperson of the agency said they do not comment on pending litigation.

The case is scheduled to be heard Jan. 12, 2023, in the state Supreme Court in Onondaga County.

Moving I-81 Project Forward Has Been Difficult

The I-81 replacement has been a contentious one in the Syracuse region for many years. NYSDOT recently moved forward with the community grid model to replace the aging and crumbling roadway, originally built during the Eisenhower administration.

However, groups like Renew 81 have challenged the plan to remove the highway.

In a statement following the Judge Neri's decision, a lawyer of the group said they are "very pleased" with the ruling and added "the state should take the opportunity to go back to the drawing board, really listen to the overwhelming majority of residents who oppose their plan, and come up with a solution that works for everyone and allows Syracuse residents to effectively commute to new jobs in Clay" — a reference to the recently announced $31 billion Micron deal to build a massive semiconductor chip factory in the Syracuse suburb.

This past July, after years of planning, NYSDOT announced details of the I-81 project, while also giving the public a look at the proposed Community Grid option that would rehab the 1.2-mi.-long freeway viaduct in the heart of Syracuse.

Transportation officials imagined a street-level business route that moves traffic efficiently through the city and helps re-connect two neighborhoods that were separated by the viaduct's construction in the 1950s.

Even before Judge Neri's order to stop the I-81 upgrade, residents and travelers were looking at five years of construction in their future. In addition, the eyesore that is the viaduct was not going to be removed for at least the next 14 months, according to NYSDOT.




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