I-81 Viaduct Project

Evolution of the I-81 Viaduct Project

In 2008, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) initiated the I-81 Corridor Study to review the highway’s existing conditions and issues as they conducted a planning-level analysis of potential options for the future of the 12-mile corridor. The Corridor Study Report and other documents related to this study and its extensive public participation program, led by NYSDOT and the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council (SMTC), are found in the study’s website. The I-81 Challenge study concluded in 2013, and will informed NYSDOT and the Federal Highway Administration during the environmental review process.

About the Project

 I-81 is integral to the Syracuse area. The highway serves as a major commuter route, providing access to jobs, businesses and services in downtown Syracuse and the hospitals and institutions on University Hill. It also serves as a national and international north-south trade route from Tennessee to the Canadian border. This connectivity is essential and influences the livability, economic vitality, and sustainability of the Syracuse metropolitan region.

Portions of I-81, which was built in the 1950s and 1960s, are deteriorating, do not meet current engineering standards, and have experienced high accident rates. This is especially true of the 1.4-mile elevated section, or “viaduct,” near downtown Syracuse.  The purpose of the I-81 Viaduct Project is to address the structural deficiencies and non-standard highway features in the I-81 corridor while creating an improved corridor through the city of Syracuse that meets transportation needs and provides the transportation infrastructure to support long-range planning efforts (such as SMTC LRTP, Syracuse Comprehensive Plan, and others).

Roads have the ability to shape the character of a community. This project presents the Syracuse region with an opportunity to formulate a vision, evaluate the community’s transportation system needs, consider the alternatives for I-81, and develop a plan for the future that best serves the community. While it is important that the highway fulfill its primary charge of moving people and goods safely and efficiently, it is also important for NYSDOT develop transportation infrastructure that can enhance economic growth and vitality in the city. With the project needs and local plans in mind, NYSDOT has developed the goals for the I-81 Viaduct Project.


Historic photo of I-81 Construction

History of I-81 in Syracuse

The 1944 passage of the Federal Highway Act began an era of road building in the United States. New York State’s highway engineers began to develop a master plan for New York State. The 1947 Urban Area Report for the Syracuse region depicted the concept for the first north-south highway through the Syracuse region, the Townsend Street arterial. The arterial was eventually incorporated into the 1955 federal publication known as the Yellow Book, which mapped out what would become the Interstate Highway System.

In 1958, a decision was made to locate a proposed interstate highway on an elevated structure along Almond Street, coinciding with the location of the Near East Side Urban Renewal Area. I-81 was constructed in three stages, opening between 1959 and 1969. .

Today I-81 is one of the most traveled roadways in the city of Syracuse and the Greater Syracuse region, carrying approximately 100,000 vehicles per day. Fifty-plus years of use and exposure to the extreme weather conditions in Syracuse have taken a toll on portions of the highway. That is why NYSDOT and FHWA  initiated this project.


Community Grid Alternative

Image of community grid alternative

The Community Grid Alternative would involve demolishing the existing viaduct between the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway (NYS&W) bridge near Renwick Avenue and the I-81/I-690 interchange. The section of I-81 between the southern I-81/I-481 interchange (Interchange 16A) and the I-81/I-481 northern interchange (Interchange 29) would be de-designated as an interstate, and existing I-481 would be re-designated as the new I-81 and would carry a minimum of four travel lanes (two in each direction) of through traffic. The portion of existing I-81 between its northern and southern intersections with I-481 would be re-designated as a business loop of I-81 (BL 81). The character of BL 81 would vary from a high-speed facility to a signalized city street.

The alternative would disperse traffic throughout the city grid, with access points to and from I-690 and BL 81 available at West Street and Crouse and Irving Avenues (to and from I-690), as well as at Clinton Street, Oswego Boulevard, and Pearl Street (to and from northern BL 81), and numerous at grade intersections along Almond Street between MLK, Jr. East and Erie Boulevard (to and from southern BL 81).

The Community Grid would also include a full reconstruction of I 690 between Leavenworth Avenue and Beech Street, with a partial I-81/I-690 interchange, as well as interchange modifications, bridge replacements and other features. Almond Street would be reconstructed and include new pedestrian and bicycle amenities.

The Community Grid Alternative would require the acquisition of four buildings. Construction would be anticipated to take six years and cost $2.25 billion.

Viaduct Alternative

Image of the Viaduct Alternative

The Viaduct Alternative would involve a full reconstruction of I-81 between approximately Colvin Street and Hiawatha Boulevard and a full reconstruction of I-690 between Leavenworth Avenue and Lodi Street.

The existing viaduct would be demolished and replaced by a new viaduct, which would be built to current design standards. Almond Street would be reconstructed and include new pedestrian and bicycle amenities.

The alternative would include a full I-81/I-690 interchange (with connections in all possible directions), interchange modifications, bridge replacements and other features.

The Viaduct Alternative would require the acquisition of 24 buildings. Construction would be anticipated to take six years to complete.

No Build Alternative

Image of what the no build option

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires the evaluation of a No Build Alternative. The No Build Alternative serves as the baseline to which the other alternatives are compared. The No Build Alternative would maintain the highway in its existing configuration. Continual maintenance and repairs would be performed to ensure the safety of the traveling public, and safety measures would be implemented to the extent feasible and practical.