I-81 Project: Projected vs. Actual Timeline



On August 26, 2013, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) published a Notice of Intent in the Federal Register to begin an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Process on the I-81 viaduct.

The notice outlined the role of the agencies and their intent to prepare the Environmental Impact Statement, give a basic description of the project, and invite the public and other agencies to participate in the process. The Notice of Intent (NOI) was published in 2013 in anticipation of the 2017 date given for the end of the useful life of an approximately one-mile stretch of Interstate 81 that runs through Syracuse.

Since publishing the NOI, the NYSDOT has held itself to a loose schedule to publish a Record of Decision on the EIS by the beginning of 2017. From beginning to end, the EIS is being developed in a number of stages, each with their own approximate timeline. But the DOT has not held itself to an exact schedule, and as a result has often left the public guessing as to the specific status and overall timeline of the project.

Compounding this uncertainty, the language used in the EIS process has often proven confusing, a problem often exacerbated by media coverage surrounding the project. For example, leading up to release of the Draft Scoping Report, it was often reported that the DOT would release a “final” report based on a three-month comment period, making it understandable for people to think the Final Scoping Report was coming down the pipeline rather than the draft version. Also, the fact that different phases of the project do and do not have the term “Environmental Impact” in their title is confusing in light of the fact the entire project as a whole is called the “Environmental Impact Statement Process”. 

All this raises the question: Given the loose and sometimes confusing timeline the DOT has been operating under, where exactly are we in this project, and is it on schedule? As it has already been made clear, nothing is set in stone except for the end date, 2017, although this date may prove to be more of an estimate. But given what information we have and what has transpired already, there are patterns in the process that we can use to determine if starting construction on the final I-81 alternative by 2017 is a realistic goal. 


Let’s start with the date of the NOI, the official start of the project, which was August 26, 2013. At this time the DOT projected a “late October” start date for the first phase of the project, the scoping comment period. Right off the bat, the projected dates and the actual dates of parts of the project begin to slip:

Beginning of Scoping Comment Period
Projected: “late October”, lasting for 30 days
Actual: November 13, 2013

Initial Meeting/Start of Scoping Period
Projected: November 13, 2013
Actual: November 13, 2013

End of Scoping Comment Period
Projected: late November
Actual: January 17, 2014

Final Scoping Meeting
Projected: summer 2014
Actual: June 26, 2014

End of Draft Scoping Report Comment Period
Projected: July 31, 2014
Actual: September 2, 2014

Release of Final Scoping Report
Projected: late 2014*
*revised to January, 2015**
**revised late March/early April 2015
Actual: April 29, 2015

This is where we are now. The DOT both adhered to and slipped behind their schedule up to this point, but the release of the Final Scoping Report came more than four months behind its first projected date – theoretically pushing back the entire project a few months.


With the release of the Final Scoping Report, the Draft EIS phase has begun. Based on the timeline up to this date and the information about future plans provided by the DOT, we can report on certain projected dates for the remaining phases of the project, as well as certain revisions on projected dates:

Release of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement
Projected: “late 2015”
Revised projection: mid-2016, based on the four-plus month delay in the release of the Final Scoping Report and the average length of time it takes to complete a Draft EIS report after the close of scoping (12-18 months)

Public Review of Draft Environmental Impact Statement
Projected length: 45 days
Revised projected length: 2-3 months, based on previous comment period extensions

These revised projections put us well into the fall of 2016. The next phase of the project after the public review of the Draft EIS is the development and release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), followed by a Record of Decision (ROD) to be published “no sooner than 30 days after publishing the FEIS” (emphasis ours). As of yet there is no projected date for the ROD other than the implied beginning of 2017 goal for the end of the entire project.

Based on the DOT’s initial, loose timeline, and taking into account it is likely to be 4-5 months behind for the remainder of the project, we end up with a projected estimate of late spring/early summer 2017 for the Record of Decision to conclude the NEPA process.


The DOT has fallen behind several months, which isn’t to say it can’t make up that time. But the conclusion of the Environmental Impact Statement Process raises further questions that the DOT has yet to address, making us wonder if they will be ready to begin the project any time soon after the Record of Decision. Will they be able to secure the necessary funding for the project by the time the ROD is published? How long will it take to break ground on the project? What is the timeline for staffing it and acquiring the necessary equipment? How long will it take to acquire the necessary permits, licenses, and approvals? Will the DOT try to secure these things concurrently with the EIS Process or will it all occur after the ROD is published? Because one thing we do know for sure: 2017 is creeping up on us.