New York officials have awarded the first construction contract for a controversial $2.3-billion highway project in Syracuse that would remove the I-81 viaduct running through the city. But it is unclear when work can begin since project work remains halted by a state court injunction won by opponents. 

Earlier this month, a state supreme court judge heard arguments from attorneys representing the state and the plan’s opponents. He has not yet issued a decision. 

The Office of the State Comptroller approved a $296.4-million contract with Salt City Constructors LLC for the first segment of work on the New York State Dept. of Transportation’s I-81 project. 

The contractor, which beat out two other shortlisted teams, is a partnership of builders Lancaster Development and Tully Construction Co. LLC, D.A. Collins Construction Co. Inc. and Cold Spring Construction Co. Inc. As ENR previously reported, the design-build team also includes HNTB New York Engineering and Architecture and Bergman Associates.

The state DOT “community grid” plan calls for demolition of the 1.4-mile viaduct that carries I-81 through downtown Syracuse. Interchanges where I-81 meets I-481, which loops around the city, would be rebuilt and I-81 would be rerouted onto the current path of I-481. The current path of I-81 would be redesignated Business Loop 81 at grade with the surrounding community and with added traffic-calming measures.

The scope of the first contract includes reconstructing the northern interchange of I-81 and I-481 into Business Loop 81 and I-81, as well as expanding portions of former I-481 from two to three lanes. 

Advocates who oppose the state plan filed a court petition last September seeking to switch to a different plan. State Supreme Court Judge Gerard Neri issued an injunction in November temporarily blocking construction while the case plays out. 

The petitioners, led by a group called Renew 81 For All, oppose the community grid plan. While officials say the plan is intended to address historic environmental and racial injustice linked to 1950s construction of the highway through predominantly Black neighborhoods, opponents say removing the viaduct could exacerbate the negative impacts by sending thousands of vehicles through local streets in those same neighborhoods. They say officials should have given more consideration to other options, including rebuilding the viaduct at a greater height. 

The New York Civil Liberties Union also raised concerns that the viaduct demolition could cause health hazards for residents in the area. Lanessa Owens-Chaplin, director of its environmental justice project, previously told ENR that the project’s lead exposure plan is focused only on protecting workers, but not residents. 

In December, Neri modified the injunction to allow DOT to move ahead with contracting, without making any on-the-ground changes, but permitting the contract award. The agency also issued an RFP for the second contract in November. Responses are due by Feb. 7, and officials anticipate contract award by May 7. As ENR previously reported, officials estimate the contract’s value at $343 million. 

Before the court case was filed, DOT officials said they expected construction to start in late 2022 and that work would finish by 2028.

The judge also issued a decision in December allowing the petitioners to request a supplemental environmental impact statement. 

In a court filing, they shared concerns that Micron Technology Inc.’s plan to build a “megafab” semiconductor chip manufacturing plant outside Syracuse in Clay, N.Y., at a cost of as much as $100 billion over 20 years, could result in greatly increased traffic on the local road system, including I-81, and that the highway project may be based on faulty data as a result.