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I-81 project on track for fall start after FEIS release

By Eric Reinhardt (ereinhardt@cnybj.com)

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Mark Frechette (left), project director of the Interstate 81 (I-81) viaduct-replacement project, and Marie Therese Dominguez, commissioner of the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), on April 14 answered questions from local reporters at Syracuse’s Inner Harbor about the release of the final environmental impact statement (FEIS) on the $2.25 billion Interstate 81 (I-81) viaduct-replacement project. (ERIC REINHARDT / CNYBJ)

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The final environmental-impact statement (FEIS) on the $2.25 billion Interstate 81 (I-81) viaduct-replacement project is now available for public viewing.

It is posted on the project’s website (i81.dot.ny.gov) for anyone interested in reviewing the report, according to Marie Therese Dominguez, commissioner of the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT). 

“We believe that the I-81 project represents a truly historic opportunity to correct a major wrong from the past and create a modern transportation network that benefits the users of the entire transportation system and all the communities in Central New York,” Dominguez said in making the announcement April 14 at Syracuse’s Inner Harbor. 

The FEIS release triggers a 30-day wait period for the public to continue to review the document, the office of Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a separate announcement the same day. 

 In her remarks, Dominguez also said the FEIS is a key project milestone that keeps it on track to break ground in the fall. The document confirms the community grid as the preferred method for replacing the aging I-81 viaduct to carry vehicle traffic through downtown Syracuse. 

The FEIS is a product of NYSDOT’s efforts to listen to the concerns of people living in Central New York, Dominquez noted. 

Following the release of the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) last summer, the NYSDOT received about 8,000 public comments focusing on various details about the plan.

“We read. We reviewed. We thoroughly analyzed all of them,” Dominguez said. 

The raised portion of Interstate 81 (I-81) in downtown Syracuse, as seen from Forman Park at 717 E. Genesee St. in downtown Syracuse. The final environmental impact statement (FEIS) on the $2.25 billion Interstate 81 (I-81) viaduct-replacement project is now available for public review. (Eric Reinhardt/CNYBJ)

The comments helped convince the NYSDOT that the proposed roundabout near Dr. King Elementary School in the I-81 project should move to a different location in the Van Buren Street area near Renwick Avenue, which is near the Syracuse University campus. 

The project will remove the existing elevated-highway structure and replace it with a new business loop and an integrated community grid that will disperse traffic along local north-south and east-west streets, Hochul’s office said. 

Environmental benefits

The I-81 project also has environmental benefits, Dominguez contended, with improved water quality as “one of the biggest,” which is why NYSDOT held the April 14 announcement at the Inner Harbor. 

The project includes improvements to the sewer and stormwater-management system that will reduce runoff and help prevent overflows during heavy rains that threaten the water quality of Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Lake.

The construction of 18,000 linear feet of storm sewer trunk lines and other enhancements will “increase the efficiency” of the current stormwater-management infrastructure by 20 percent and reduce the volume of runoff flowing to the combined sewer system by an average of 173 million gallons per year, Hochul’s office said. 

Stormwater from the downtown sections of I-690 and I-81 currently flows into the local combined stormwater and sewer system, which is owned by the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County. Periods of heavy rain can cause stormwater overload, which results in “untreated discharges” into local tributaries, such as Onondaga Creek, which then flows into Onondaga Lake.

Frechette on the FEIS

The mid-April release of the FEIS is really a culmination of all the changes that have been made since last July when the DEIS was released, Mark Frechette, NYSDOT’s I-81 project director, said to begin his remarks at the Inner Harbor.

“And it includes responses to all 8,000 comments that we received,” he added. 

In those comments, “many people” were “very supportive” of the community grid as the preferred alternative. In addition, many of those commenting had advocated for job creation in relation to the I-81 project, and specifically for local hiring, Frechette noted. 

“To have people who live here in Central New York work on this project, we will create jobs,” he said. “There will be a lot of need for jobs.”

NYSDOT was asked to accelerate apprenticeship and training programs for people to become heavy-equipment operators, masons, iron workers, and laborers.

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