Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon in the audience during an event with President Joe Biden. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

Among the loftier goals outlined in Onondaga County’s proposed comprehensive plan is the extension of bus-rapid transit into the county. 

But during an interview with Central Current, county officials floated an even loftier one: bringing light rail to Onondaga County. 

“What is the right model? You probably have one ask,” County Executive Ryan McMahon said. “Do you aspire for some sort of light rail in a specific corridor? Or do you go to the BRT model? The reality is, whether it’s countywide or not, what you really need is some level of transportation that hits your economic drivers.” 

McMahon floated the idea during the run-up to the release of the county’s comprehensive plan, called PlanOn, being released. 

The county’s planning board passed the comprehensive plan on May 17. It will now be voted on by the Onondaga County Legislature at the body’s July session. 

It laid out a broad vision for the county’s future, including revamped public transportation, zoning laws and more affordable housing. 

If the Legislature approves the plan, it would become the first one adopted in 28 years. The county last approved a comprehensive plan in 1995, though other versions — like former County Executive Joanie Mahoney’s sustainability plan — have been proposed and languished since then. 

“This isn’t just an aspirational document,” McMahon said. 

McMahon and Dan Kwasnowski, the director of the Syracuse-Onondaga County Planning Agency, said they would like to get a federal grant to study what bus rapid transit or light rail could look like. The county would hope to partner with the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council to study enhanced public transportation if it can get a grant, Kwasnowski said.

The officials named two specific corridors that could see additional public transportation: the Route 31 corridor, which runs East-West through the county’s northern suburbs, and Morgan Road, which runs North-South, from Liverpool to the northern suburbs.  

Kwasnowski identified the bus rapid transit used in Markham, Ontario, as a possible preferred model. Markham’s model includes dedicated bus lanes with elevated platforms to board the bus. 

Some bus-rapid transit service is set to be in place by 2026. Currently, Centro, the public transportation authority, plans for buses to run more frequently along two new routes: One that goes from Onondaga County Community College to Eastwood and another that goes from Syracuse University to the North Side. The routes would cross at the downtown Centro bus hub and use already existing city streets. 

Onondaga County previously had a local rail system, called OnTrack, from 1994 to 2008. It ran from Colvin Street to Syracuse’s Regional Transportation Center; in the summer, service expanded out to Jamesville. The service was ultimately shuttered due to high operating costs. 

Any public transportation project would likely require significant investments from the federal or state governments. 

McMahon said a study would be the first route to gaining steam for more public transportation outside the city. A successful study and plan could catch the eye of the Micron Community Engagement Committee, McMahon said. 

The committee was formed as part of the community investment framework that created a $500 million community benefits package. It was tasked with, among other things, removing barriers like transportation to working in the semiconductor industry in Central New York. 

McMahon suggested that getting the community engagement committee involved could also propel leaders in state and the federal government — particularly United States Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — to free up money to pay for in public transportation in Syracuse.

“These are things where you probably have one shot to get it right,” McMahon said.

Editor’s note: This story originally stated that bus-rapid transit would only be created in the city of Syracuse. It will run to Onondaga Community College, which is located in the town of Onondaga.

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Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.