I-481’s jam-packed exit near Syracuse gets no relief in I-81 proposal

By Teri Weaver

DeWitt, N.Y. – The overwhelming majority of Interstate 481 keeps traffic moving at normal speeds during daily rush hours in the Syracuse suburbs, according to state transportation records.

But there is one spot on I-481 that is currently jammed up during the evening drive home.

It’s Exit 3 on the southbound side.

Those are the ramps in DeWitt that lead to Fayetteville, to the area’s largest Wegmans and to tens of thousands of homes in Syracuse’s eastern suburbs. Nearly 58,000 vehicles travel on that section of I-481, on average, each day, according to state data.

Interstate 481 near Syracuse, N.Y., is part of the Interstate 81 project. Teri Weaver | tweaver@syracuse.com
Teri Weaver | [email protected] 481 near Syracuse, N.Y., is part of the Interstate 81 project. Teri Weaver | [email protected]

“I am not surprised to hear that,” said Jessica Rice, who lives in DeWitt and works on University Hill. Most evenings, she says, she gets off I-481 at Jamesville Road, Exit 2, to avoid the traffic at Exit 3.

Yet the state’s proposed $2 billion Interstate 81 project to rework Syracuse’s highway system would do nothing to improve that DeWitt/Fayetteville exit, according to a review of the state’s plans by syracuse.com.

A state Department of Transportation official confirmed that. The current proposal “does not propose any changes at Exit 3,” spokesman Joseph Morrissey wrote in response to questions.

The state is proposing to turn I-481 into part of I-81, a federal highway that runs from Tennessee to Canada.

That transformation would add more cars onto the 15-mile stretch on Syracuse’s eastern side – at a rate of 1,000 vehicles per hour during peak times, according to the state’s DOT.

In anticipation of that increase, the state’s proposal includes reworking the southern and northern ends of I-481, where it meets I-81 now. The proposal would also widen parts of I-481 north of Interstate 690.

When it comes to Exit 3, state transportation officials say they actually expect traffic to lessen slightly once the mega-project is complete, Morrissey said in response to questions.

That’s because once a part of I-81 comes down in the city, fewer people are expected to use I-481 south from East Genesee Street to head into Syracuse – a pattern change for some who want to avoid the new grid system. Instead, more people are expected to use I-690 to access the city’s east side.

That change means fewer drivers would be merging and switching lanes in the Exit 3 area. It should, officials say, improve the overall flow there – even in the evening commute.

In the end, though, part of the area around Exit 3 would still be more congested than every other I-481 segment after the five-year construction project is over, state data shows.

Already, cars stack up in the afternoon for people getting off I-481 there on the northbound side. Currently there’s a stop sign at the end of that busy ramp – and for now there are no plans to change that stop-and-go pattern.

“Frequently traffic is backed up now between 4:30 and 5:30,” said Kerry Mannion of Exit 3. He’s the deputy town supervisor in the town of DeWitt, home to six of I-481’s nine exits, and a critic of the state’s proposal. “I don’t know how they’re going to do it.”

The evening commute is more congested now than the morning trip from Syracuse’s eastern suburbs. Two lanes feed traffic onto I-481 from Genesee – also called Routes 92 and 5 – for people headed to work. On the return trip home, cars funnel onto single lane ramps at Exit 3.

That all adds up to worry for some I-481 users who reached out to syracuse.com | The Post-Standard about the future of their highway on the east side.

“It’s so difficult to drive now as it is,” says Geri Vasta, who lives in DeWitt and takes I-481 daily to visit her husband in a nearby nursing home.

Vasta said she thinks suburbs like DeWitt are getting short-changed. “It’s like they kicked us under the bus to get what they want in the city,” she said.

The proposal, so far, also doesn’t include any long-term changes for increases in traffic noise along I-481’s current pathway.

“NYSDOT will conduct extensive outreach to area residents and businesses who may be impacted by noise coming from the re-designated Interstate 481,” Morrissey wrote in response to questions. The state “will use the feedback to determine what long-term mitigation measures may be necessary.”

Parts of I-81 and Interstate 690 in Syracuse are aging and dangerous; they need to be replaced or come down, state officials have said. To address that, the state has proposed what it calls a community grid solution – tearing down part of I-81 that runs between downtown and the University Hill area.

In its place would be Business Loop 81, a combination of high-speed sections and city streets with traffic lights. I-81 highway traffic would be rerouted onto I-481.

Talk about building an eastern highway loop around Syracuse started in 1958, according to a review of papers at the Onondaga Historical Association. At the time, population was on the rise and leaders wanted a second way to get people on and off the state’s Thruway.

But construction didn’t start until the late 1970s. What became I-481 was built in stages, with the final leg on the northern end opening in 1985.

More than three decades later, state data shows most of the traffic on I-481 is flowing smoothly – except at Exit 3.

Those who use that DeWitt/Fayetteville exit to get from the northern suburbs or from I-690 to homes east of Syracuse experience that on the ride home. In the evening rush hour, the traffic slows. Vehicles can’t always go the posted speed limit. And any accident would cause major delays.

After the proposed changes – and even by 2050 – most of what we now call I-481 would still be able to handle the added traffic without becoming congested, the state data shows.

What would Exit 3 look like in 2050? The state’s analysis shows the congestion level at the DeWitt/Fayetteville exit would be right back where it is now.

State officials stress that the conversation about the highways is far from over. The DOT is holding a series of community meetings about the project in June and July.

Mark Frechette, the I-81 project director, says the people should bring forward their concerns now – before the plans are in the final stages.

“We’re starting the public outreach process,” he said. “We would ask people to come and talk to us so that things can be taken into consideration…We want people to bring their concerns to us.”