2021 State Referendum Basis of I-81 Project Court Case
The “Environmental Rights Amendment”, a state constitutional amendment approved by New York voters in November 2021, is being cited in a legal challenge against the New York State Department of Transportation's (NYSDOT) approval for a $2.25 billion infrastructure project to reroute the I-81 highway through the City of Syracuse.
A State Supreme Court filing on September 30 shows the group "Renew 81 for All" is seeking to "annul the approvals" issued by the NYSDOT that would demolish an I-81 viaduct running through the City of Syracuse and create a system of street-level intersections with traffic lights. The approved project is called the "Community Grid" alternative plan, announced on March 31, 2022, 14 years after the NYSDOT first began an I-81 corridor study.
In the filing, the petitioners claim NYSDOT "failed to take a “hard look” at a reasonable range of alternatives to the project, which would have mitigated its significant environmental, economic, and social impacts." Additionally, the filing states "...respondents also failed to properly evaluate or minimize the additional greenhouse gases (“GHG”) that would be generated due to the adverse traffic-related impacts from the project, including increased travel times, increased vehicle miles traveled (“VMT”) and slow speeds in many areas, which would conflict with the state policy to reduce GHG."
The petitioners cite the Environmental Rights Amendment of 2021 and the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) as a basis for their arguments.
The "right to clean water, clean air, and a healthful environment" was part of the Environmental Rights Amendment passed in November of 2021 by 70% or 2,129,051 New York State voters. The CLCPA was passed by the state legislature in 2019 and commits New York to a greenhouse gas emission-free power grid by 2040 and a net zero carbon statewide economy by 2050. The CLCPA’s Climate Action Council is charged with issuing a final implementation plan by the end of 2022.
The Business Council of New York State opposed the amendment citing in a 2021 Legislative Memo, "...while the underlying intent is laudable if enacted as is the proposed amendment to the State Constitution would undoubtedly flood courts with litigation and bring all manner of economic development to a halt."
Additionally, The Business Council has raised concerns as to the potential for CLCPA implementation and its ambiguous project approval standards to push economic activity and greenhouse gas emissions out of New York to other jurisdictions.
There were four public hearings on the then-proposed project in August of 2021, two months before the constitutional amendment was adopted. According to a March 2022 press release from Governor Hochul, more than 8,000 comments were received by the NYSDOT before it issued its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), with an additional 1,000 comments coming during the 30-day review period on the FEIS.
Construction of the project is anticipated to take five years and cost $1.9 billion.