The final environmental-impact statement for the I-81 project [has been released] by the New York State Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). This is a critical next step in advancing this $2.2 billion investment in our community to transform a major transportation asset and reconnect parts of our city that have been disconnected for too long.
The forward progress of this project creates an imperative for leaders to implement mitigation measures to limit the disruptions created by construction. It is important to remember that, while the focus of the project is on the elevated section of I-81, the project also includes work on I-690, I-81, and I-481. It is expected, at times, that all three highways will be under construction simultaneously. Therefore, the state should invest in and incentivize traffic alternatives during the construction period to reduce driver delays and emissions from cars slowed by construction, as well as enhance the safety of workers. As the Thruway runs parallel to I-690, it is a strong alternative to bypass construction and achieve all these outcomes.
While I fully believe that eliminating tolls during construction is the right decision, I also recognize the challenges raised by NYS Thruway Authority Executive Director Matt Driscoll, including the need to meet revenue projections to protect the Thruway’s bond rating. Under Driscoll’s leadership, the Thruway is well-run, fiscally stable, and making leading-edge investments in technology, including cashless tolling and the use of drones for bridge inspections, accident recreation, and more. Given the transformative nature of this project, we must apply similar innovative thinking to develop data-driven solutions, including utilizing the Thruway’s technology to turn off the toll charges in the Syracuse area during I-81 project construction. New York State, which has the resources, should make up the difference.
The stability and strength of the Thruway Authority means it can serve as an important asset for the region to mitigate construction impacts of the I-81 project. Furthermore, it will demonstrate Central New York’s leadership for using data to drive solutions for real-world challenges, aligning with the region’s smart-systems efforts.
As with all projects of this scale, there will be challenges and we pledge to work cooperatively with the state, local municipalities, and affected businesses on a comprehensive plan for the region. This support includes a commitment to working with Assemblyman Magnarelli to advance his legislation to temporarily pause certain Thruway tolls during the I-81 project. Additionally, we will work with Driscoll to ensure the Thruway Authority can continue its operations without loss of critical revenue.
Later this summer, we anticipate a final record of decision on I-81, the last step in a decade-plus evaluation of the project. Now is the time to come together to develop solutions that will enable our community to seize this opportunity in a way that limits disruptions and advances its potential.
Robert M. Simpson is president and CEO of CenterState CEO, the primary economic-development organization for Central New York. This article is drawn and edited from the “CEO Focus” email newsletter that the organization sent to members on April 14.