October 22, 2021

Cortland commutes a bit longer under I-81 plan

Cortland County Seal

A multi-billion dollar project to recreate Interstate 81 through Syracuse may slightly lengthen commutes from Cortland, state data show, but that’s based on a number of assumptions.

Dubbed a community grid plan, the proposed change would demolish the elevated viaduct that runs over the city and bring the highway down to street level.

The project, if approved, would take five years and cost between $1.9 billion and $2.2 billion. The proposal, however, still has to pass through further public hearings before final approval is decided.

State officials have repeatedly insisted the proposed solution would be “fast” — variations on this theme have been voiced by officials regarding the project — while at the same time acknowledging some motorists may experience slightly slower times reaching certain destinations.

That especially seems to be true for those south of Syracuse — everyone who lives in Cortland County, for instance.

According to state data, driving times from Cortland to several typical Syracuse destinations would see slightly longer drive times, such as Baldwinsvillle, DestinyUSA, Fairmount, and Liverpool.

Drive times to downtown are projected to speed up by a minute in the morning, or not change at all at night — the same goes for Fayetteville and Manlius.

But the DOT estimates are based on assumptions, one of which is that a substantial portion of current I-81 traffic would, after the grid plan is constructed, divert to Interstate 481, which loops 15 miles around the metropolitan area’s east end before it connects with I-81 again in Cicero. Navigation apps suggest the travel times of I-481 and I-81 are similar.

I-481 is expected to see an increase in traffic as a result, and the community grid plan would seek to accommodate this additional load by adding auxiliary lanes to I-481 in both directions between Interchange 5 — Kirkville Road — and Interchange 4 — I-690 — and also to northbound I-481 between Interchange 5 and Interchange 6 — I-90.

Curtis Jetter, a DOT spokesman, said the community grid plan will have neglible impact on Cortland County motorists.

“Average travel times from points south to the City of Syracuse will not be dramatically affected as high speed access will be maintained on I-81 through the I-481 interchange,” Jetter wrote in an email. “Travelers choosing to continue north using Business Loop 81 can expect a few minutes of additional travel time to access points north of the city.”

Cazenovia resident Larry Wetzel, chairman of Air Innovations, a specialized air conditioning equipment company based in Syracuse, is optimistic about the proposed community grid plan. Wetzel spends his winters in Charleston, S.C., a city that features a community grid plan much like the one proposed for Syracuse.

Based on his driving experiences in Charleston, Wetzel said he’s optimistic about future drive times around Syracuse.

Although Wetzel has spent eight winters in Charleston, he did not live there before the community grid was implemented, so he can’t compare driving times to the original highway layout.

But he thinks the situation between the two cities is similar: The cities are of comparable size; both have interstate highways that intersect each other; both originally had elevated highways that passed over the center of the city; and both have hospital and university buildings accessible off the highways, with lower-income neighborhood cut off by elevated viaducts.

“I think it’s going to make things easier, quite frankly,” Wetzel said. “For me, it will actually improve my commute when I go into the city.”

He thinks other suburban residents may have misconceptions about how a community grid plan works, such as that it would snarl traffic at lights and slow commuting times.

“I think that’s a misconception, but you might catch a light or two,” he said.