VIDEO: New York's Plan to Replace Aging I-81 Viaduct in Syracuse Finally Comes into Focus
Wed July 21, 2021 - Northeast Edition CEG
A newly released construction plan from the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) shows that the replacement of the city's crumbling Interstate 81 will involve many pieces before construction is finished in five years.
It also will come with an estimated price tag of $1.9 billion.
But even as Syracuse residents and officials rejoice at the state's decision to start the I-81 upgrade, the aging eyesore that is the viaduct — over which the interstate runs through the downtown — will not be removed for at least 18 months, according to the NYSDOT.
On July 16, after years of planning, the agency 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.
When it is done, NYSDOT officials imagine 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.
CNYCentral.com, the online news site of Syracuse's WSTM-TV, reported that city leaders applauded upon hearing the news that the community grid option was chosen as the best plan to replace the crumbling viaduct.
Standing beneath an I-81 overpass, Mayor Ben Walsh said, "I'm excited. Today is a big day for the city of Syracuse and the Central New York region."
"The whole world is watching us," he continued. "We have the opportunity to be a case study in how to do transportation construction projects the right way that create opportunity and transformational change for the city and the entire region."
Syracuse Common Council Transportation Chair Joe Driscoll joined the mayor in praising a project that has long been needed to repair a broken piece of the city's infrastructure.
"Undoubtedly, this is going to be one of the biggest projects that's come to this region [and] will change the fabric of our communities for our lifetimes," said Driscoll.
Another opportunity lies with job creation. CNYCentral.com reported that Syracuse Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens believes the city will need to find enough workers for the estimated 7.9 million hours it will take to make the grid happen.
"We're looking at what workforce we have, [and] what trainings we have to get going to make sure we have our workforce prepared," she explained.
Multi-Phased Construction Lies Ahead
Without a doubt, a great deal of work is ahead to not only improve, but reconfigure, I-81 through the city, according to the Syracuse Post Standard's online Syracuse.com outlet.
Construction would occur in two phases, according to the NYSDOT. The first, or so-called "preparatory phase," is set to take two years and will focus on ensuring that highways and main arteries in the area can handle traffic disruption caused by the large reconstruction of roadways in the second phase.
The raised viaduct at the center of the project — I-81 between Renwick Avenue and I-690 — will not be demolished until the end of phase one, according to the NYSDOT's draft environmental impact statement.
Before that section of highway can be razed, the state will need to accomplish the following:
Build a portion of the new Crouse/Irving interchange with I-690, an addition that promises to ease traffic to and from Syracuse University and other high-density areas nearby.
Convert what is now I-481 to I-81, which means rebuilding both the north and south interchanges of I-81 and I-481 to accommodate more traffic.
Build a new northbound off-ramp to Colvin Street on the Syracuse's South Side as well as construct a southern section of Almond Street between Martin Luther King Jr. East and Van Buren Street.
Make permanent and temporary upgrades to other nearby streets to help handle increased traffic.
The first thing to be completed, according to the state, is a new off-ramp from I-81 to Colvin Street. That will be opened to traffic upon being completed, potentially after six months.
According to Syracuse.com, the most dramatic first-phase changes will occur along Almond Street, which now runs under the decaying viaduct and will become Business Loop 81. The street will be reconstructed on both the north and south ends, which will take 18 to 24 months. On its north end, Almond Street will be reconstructed between Fayette Street and I-690, while a new roundabout will be built to disperse traffic heading into the city on Almond between MLK Jr. East and Van Buren Street.
The changes to the north and south interchanges of I-81 and I-481 would begin immediately and take about 18 months. Afterward, I-481 would be designated as the new I-81.
Only after the roundabout is built and I-481 is re-designated will the I-81 viaduct be demolished. The structure's razing is scheduled to take six months, but officials said July 16 it could possibly be done in less time.
Also, in the first 18 months of the project, construction crews are set to add new access to the Hill via I-690 by building new ramps to and from I-690 at Crouse and Irving avenues.
In the first year of work on the northern edge of the project, the Butternut and Court Street bridges will be replaced, followed in the second year by improvements to the Spencer and Bear Street bridges, along with a widening of West Bear Street.
Once the first phase is completed, Syracuse.com reported that the NYSDOT expects to take three years on the second phase of the I-81 project.
In the first 18 months of phase two, eastbound I-690 will undergo major reconstruction on a 2-mi. section between Leavenworth Avenue and Beech Street. While that occurs, eastbound I-690 will be closed to traffic between West Street and Crouse Avenue and drivers will be detoured onto West Street through the city and back onto I-690 at Crouse.
Westbound I-690 will remain open.
Syracuse.com's July 19 news story noted that NYSDOT planned to make "temporary improvements" designed to ease congestion caused by the closure, but state officials wrote in an analysis that the local street grid can handle the increased traffic during the construction.
Phase two also will include the reconstruction of the interchanges between I-690 and West Street. Over 18 months, ramps will be built between eastbound and westbound I-690 to and from West Street and Genesee Street. Motorists will still be able to access West Street during this part of the work, and traffic lanes will be shifted at various times during construction to accommodate traffic on westbound I-690, NYSDOT said.
Once the changes are completed at the eastbound I-690 and West Street interchange, work that should take a year and a half, demolition experts will tear down and rebuild westbound I-690 in Syracuse.
The effort is planned to be the final 18 months of the five-year project, according to NYSDOT.
Public Opinion Wanted
NYSDOT is giving the public the chance to weigh in on the I-81 project as two hearings are scheduled for Aug. 17-18 in Syracuse. In addition, the agency is taking comments on the work until Sept. 14. To do so, or to get more information, visit the state's website at https://webapps.dot.ny.gov/i-81-viaduct-project?utm_medium=301&utm_source=i81.dot.ny.gov
Driscoll encouraged citizens to let NYSDOT know how important the I-81 improvements are to the city and the state.
"It's time to move forward with the grid," Driscoll remarked to CNYCentral.com. "It's time to get shovels in the ground after a decade of debating and discussing. It's really time to move forward and get this project done and try to refine it as best we can in the last two months [that] we have to raise our voices."
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