A state plan to turn elevated portions of Interstate 81 in Syracuse into a ground level city boulevard has drawn fire from a number of groups who claim the plan could choke off a vital roadway serving the wider Syracuse area. Now it seems the federal government may share some of those concerns. For months, in a series of letters and e-mails, a behind the scenes struggle has been underway between federal and state officials, with the feds questioning some of the key documents the state has relied on as it considers its options. Bill Carey says YNN has now obtained some of those documents.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- March 4th. The Federal Highway Administration, which controls aid that will cover about 80 percent of the 81 project's costs, was complaining that a request for proposals from consulting firms was, in the words of District Engineer Robert Davies, "not prudent."
The feds were complaining that the state had seemed to focus on just one solution, the plan for removal of the raised highway, replaced by a boulevard. The letter says that assumption was "premature" since a broader study could turn up other alternatives.
Months later, in e-mails, federal agency workers were complaining that important documents from the state were arriving weeks late. And the concerns over a state emphasis on the so-called boulevard plan were growing. Claims being made by the state about that proposal were labeled "vague," "unsubstantiated" or "misleading."
The state says if several miles of 81 are closed through the City of Syracuse, the plan would be to reroute the Interstate along Route 481. Yet, in their e-mails, federal officials said there was no indication the state had studied the potential impact along 481.
Further they complained, "charts and graphs" were "depicting a significant reduction in expressway delays." But they warned that with several miles of highway removed, "the delays still exist in the same locations."
After meeting with state officials, a letter from Patricia Millington of the Federal department said, "further studies are required for the city street network." She warned the project posed "the potential of rerouting 88 percent of the existing I-81 traffic onto the city street network."
The state's current strategy, she warned, has the potential to cause traffic on those streets to back up "onto the expressway, which is unacceptable."
In the midst of the behind the scenes struggle between Washington and Albany, the state called a halt to plans to move forward with a $32 million study of the project, saying it needed more time to study alternatives.
Back in March, there was a thinly veiled warning contained in that earlier letter. That a "satisfactory resolution will help ensure maximum Federal-aid eligibility." Unspoken is that if the problems aren't resolved, that money may not be forthcoming.
Read the letters and e-mails from the Federal Highway Administration below: