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 help inform the NYSDOT and Federal Highway Administration as they work through the environmental review process to determine the best way to improve I-81 in Syracuse.

About the Project

Interstate 81 (I-81) is important 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 and nearing the end of their useful life. Also, sections of I-81 do not meet current standards and are experiencing high accident rates. This is especially true of the 1.4-mile elevated section, or “viaduct,” near downtown Syracuse. Now is the time to address I-81’s safety concerns and the structural integrity of the viaduct. In order to do this, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) are following an environmental review process. 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 to consider the extent to which the transportation infrastructure 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, especially the viaduct. That is why NYSDOT and FHWA have initiated a highway improvement project.