WASHINGTON, D.C. (WSYR-TV) — Congressman John Katko thinks the Federal Highway Administration will be the ultimate referee in the years-long debate over how to replace the aging Interstate 81 viaduct through Downtown Syracuse.
Working to keep constituents happy in both the City of Syracuse and surrounding suburbs, Katko hasn’t publicly endorsed any of the options that were once up for study and debate.
Katko has consistently said his role is to ensure the appropriate federal funding is in place for the final design, which he says needs to include input from both the city and suburb communities.
In a draft plan released in April of 2019, the State DOT endorsed the community grid as the best option, all but ruling out keeping high-speed traffic in its current path.
Recent momentum seems to be shifting closer to the community grid of local streets being a done deal. Governor Andrew Cuomo recently allocated $800 million for the grid plan.
The project has specifically named in President Joe Biden’s jobs and infrastructure plan. Katko recently asked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for a project update, as the latest plan is reviewed by the Federal Highway Administration.
Despite the momentum, Katko thinks state engineers should consider adding more to the community grid project to relieve the worries of suburban communities. Specifically, Katko thinks the DOT should consider the “iconic bridge” idea that was pitched by a group of Onondaga County town supervisors on Tuesday.
In an interview with NewsChannel 9 on Wednesday, Katko said, “I’m convinced that it’ll probably be the grid in some way, shape, or form, but I’m not convinced that you might not have some other proposals out there. I’ve heard some proposals like to have an elevated bridge that would really like be iconic. Let’s take a look at that. “
When asked if adding more options is realistic, Katko said, “It’s clear that (state leaders) favor the grid and it’s clear that the grid in some iteration is going to happen, but if they can tweak the grid to make it more palatable for others, great. If that doesn’t work, whatever the community gets behind, I’m going to make sure it’s the most successful project we can possibly make it.”
Katko admits, in the end, no single plan will be a perfect compromise and not everyone will be happy.
“At some point, you’ve just got to make a decision and we’ve got to move on. I think we’re all at that decision-making point now,” the Congressman said.
The State DOT has not revealed updates made to the plan since the 2019 draft release. An updated design is being reviewed by the Federal Highway Administration.
Katko says real public input will be offered once the federal government returns the draft plan to the state and opens a formal comment period.
Katko further explains, “That’s when the real rubber hits the road because then, there’s a finite amount of time for community comments. Then, the Federal Highway Administration takes those comments into consideration. They may be the ultimate arbiter, probably gonna be, and say ‘Look, this sounds great. This sounds great. This doesn’t. Here’s what it is. Here’s your record of decision. Start the shovels in the ground.'”
“I think we’re fast approaching that,” Katko concluded. “I’m excited. I think it’s going to be great no matter what happens.”
Katko has written to Transportation Secretary Buttigieg, formally inviting him to visit the I-81 project site in Syracuse.
NewsChannel 9 has not heard back from the USDOT on if Buttigieg will accept the invitation.