The Difficulty of Finding Compromise on I81

This past week, both Central New York’s federal and state legislators have made noise about I81. The region’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo asking that NYSDOT not focus on money when deciding how to replace the current viaduct. Then, Senator John DeFrancisco and Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli held a contentious press conference where they claimed that traffic would get really bad if NYSDOT doesn’t spend the money to rebuild I81 along its current path through Downtown.

This decision should be about more than money. New York State spends a lot of money on cosmetic frills, and it shouldn’t turn cheap when it comes to a project as important as this one. Governor Cuomo and Senators Schumer and Gillibrand have repeatedly said that once the community unites behind a proposal, they’ll find the money to build it.

Unfortunately, money isn’t what’s gotten in the way of consensus on this project. The problem has been that different interest groups want mutually exclusive results from whatever NYSDOT builds after it demolishes the current viaduct. It will be difficult for any design to satisfy city resident groups who want to improve the area around Almond Street, businesses who benefit from proximity to interstate exits, suburban politicians who want to keep vehicle traffic concentrated in the City, and University Hill interests who want easy interstate access and room to expand.

So far, NYSDOT’s plans to replace the viaduct have split these four interest groups into two camps. Plans for a new tunnel or viaduct keep traffic concentrated on I81’s current path and have satisfied suburban politicians and interstate businesses. However, because these plans include lots of on/off ramps and a 4-way interchange between I81 and I690, they also use up a lot of land around Almond Street, sever local streets, and make the area undesirable for development. Those problems have led city residents and University Hill interests to oppose the viaduct and tunnel options.

Plans for a street-level option make the area around Almond Street more attractive and maintain easy access to University Hill from the interstate, satisfying city residents and University Hill interests. However, routing through traffic around the City also sends more cars to the suburbs, and it diverts traffic from businesses located along I81’s current route between the I481 interchanges (Dunk and Bright, DestinyUSA, 7th North Hotels).

Senator DeFrancisco and Assemblyman Magnarelli represent interests on both sides of this divide, and they hope that a hybrid tunnel/street-level option can unite the community. The ‘hybrid’ idea first popped up in 2014 when DestinyUSA began pushing the Access Syracuse Plan.The-Access-Syracuse-Plan-MODIFIED-v2-8-25-14

This plan maintained I81’s current path almost exactly, but it buried the interstate between Van Buren and Townsend Streets. North of Townsend Street, the interstate continued as a depressed highway with bridges carrying State, James, Willow, and Salina Streets over top of it. North of Salina Street, the interstate linked up with its current depressed route and continued unchanged. The real compromise of this plan was that it eliminated much of the interchange between I81 and I690, thus freeing up all that land around Almond Street and keeping the entire local street grid intact.

However, there were serious problems with the Access Syracuse Plan. It didn’t meet NYSDOT’s standards because it eliminated the I81/I690 interchange and because it maintained the current viaduct’s tight curves. It is also unlikely, that University Hill interests would accept the plan because, in order to maintain the local street grid, it removed exits and decreased interstate access to the Hill. This will be a problem for any tunnel, according to Doug Mankiewicz of the University Hill Corporation: “Tunnels are generally good for getting through things… They’re not so good at getting to things, so if the goal is to get to downtown, to get to University Hill, to get to the lakefront–the basic problem with tunnels is, when you’re trying to get to something, they’re not so good.”

As it stands, everyone is waiting for the final report from WSP-Parsons Brinkerhoff, the independent firm that the State hired to revisit the tunnel option. All politicians involved seem to hope that the report will contain a detailed plan for a tunnel that will satisfy all local parties. However, since that would mean a tunnel that doesn’t interchange with I690, such a proposal would not meet NYSDOT’s standards for the project. It’s also unclear how a tunnel could both provide easy access to University Hill while also maintaining the local street grid, since the on/off ramps of any exit would cut into city streets.

Whenever the report does come out and it becomes clear that no option can meet NYSDOT regulations and satisfy all local interest groups, then we’ll see what everybody really thinks. Are Senator DeFrancisco and Assemblyman Magnarelli looking to discredit the street-level option in order to justify the cost of maintaining I81’s current path? Will Senators Schumer and Gillibrand get funding for a project even if it doesn’t make everybody happy? Does Syracuse University care more about access to the interstate or developing an ‘campus-city’ to attract new students? Can local interests outweigh NYSDOT’s regulations in the final design?

Regardless of any of this, public pressure can force politicians to do the right thing. Call them all up and tell them what about this project matters to you.