The New I-81 Tunnel Options are not Compromises

On January 11, published a letter from State Senator John DeFrancisco. In it, Senator DeFrancisco again pushed what he calls the “hybrid option” as a compromise between those who want to get rid of the “unsightly viaducts” and those who want to maintain “efficient movement of interstate traffic.” According to him, that compromise means “tearing down the viaducts and creating a community grid” and then adding “a short tunnel to keep interstate traffic flowing efficiently through the city.”

The Senator has been banging this drum for more than a year, but this is the first time he’s written to the Post-Standard since WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff released its independent report on the feasibility of building a tunnel under Downtown Syracuse. That report was supposed to show exactly how a tunnel+grid design could compromise between the interests of businesses located along I-81’s current path, city resident groups, suburban politicians, and University Hill all while meeting NYSDOT’s standards for the project. That’s a pretty tall order, and this report didn’t fill it.

For city resident groups, the point of removing the viaduct is to encourage property development and raise property tax revenues on the east side of Downtown. The viaduct discourages development there because it covers up some land and makes adjacent land unattractive. This is a problem along the viaduct’s entire length, but it’s worst where the viaduct’s curving interchange’s ramps cover multiple full city blocks near the intersection of Almond and Fayette Streets.

All four of the recommended tunnel designs include off-on ramps for a new I-690 exit at Almond Street that recreate this exact problem:

“Providing a direct local-to-interstate connection would be critical to maintaining acceptable levels of service in downtown Syracuse. To provide this connection from the north end of Almond Street, on- and off-ramps would begin and end in a wide center median at the intersection of Almond Street with Fayette Street, and ascend north and west toward over Washington Street, Water Street, and Erie Street, ultimately tying in to I-690 EB and WB. This would necessitate the closure of Washington Street and Water Street due to vertical clearance requirements.”

The report claims that the switch from a highway interchange to highway off ramps “would provide a substantial amount of residual state-owned land for potential disposal north of Fayette Street between McBride Street and Almond Street,” but it’s hard to believe that any developers would be willing to buy that land since the 2nd and 3rd stories of any building built on it would be just yards away from heavy traffic travelling at forty miles an hour.

It’s strange, really, that WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff would include these ramps in all of its designs when NYSDOT didn’t think an exit from I-690 at Almond Street was necessary “to maintain acceptable levels of service in downtown Syracuse.” NYSDOT’s Community Grid plan instead included new exits at Irving and Crouse Avenues, and it kept the on-off ramps parallel to I-690 to leave as much land open for development as possible. The result is more land that’s more attractive for development and more likely to yield more property taxes to fund city services.


Senator DeFrancisco can keep trying to say that he wants a compromise, but he’s going to need to start actually respecting what people would want out of a compromise. It’s not enough to just say the words “hybrid option” and “community grid.” He’s got to actually advocate for a design that benefits the City in the way that NYSDOT’s community grid design can.