Long Road Ahead: Kent in early stages of state Route 261 improvement plan

What was once wishful thinking on the parts of local engineers of the 1960s is now the task at hand for James Bowling, Kent’s current superintendent of engineering. Minds behind state Route 261, which connects Kent to Akron and other nearby cities and townships, belonged to an era that anticipated a significant Northeast Ohio growth that never showed up.
“I think the general concept of building a highway from Akron to and around Kent that pretty much parallels 76 would probably not be thought of today, even if there were great growth in population,” Bowling said. “The long-term plan was given up a long time ago; the need for that kind of facility just isn’t there.”

Curtis Baker, director of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS), which has conducted research into 261 and other roadways, has noticed similar trends in other local highways.

“I think this is something that has happened in the rust belt occasionally,” Baker said. “When the growth didn’t happen because of economic reasons and factories shutting down, the roadway was no longer needed, (with) some of the pieces built becoming a little out of place like 261.”

With four lanes and large intersections, SR 261 stretches past the Kent State baseball field, restaurants like Mike’s Place, a Land O’Lakes factory and several clusters of low-income and senior housing. The original intent for the highway was to move traffic, however, the number of commuters that utilize it has diminished in the last decade.

Using records filed away from previous studies, Bowling and his team are able to map the downward traffic trend. One 261 portion has experienced a dip from 19,000 cars a day in 1996 to now 13,000. While these stats carry some inconsistencies (studies from some years were conducted while Kent State was not in session), Bowling assures use of the highway is diminishing.

“Even with the university growing, traffic is going down,” he said. “Now, problems are generated by having an over-built road that doesn’t carry a lot of traffic.”

Chief among these problems concerns the safety of both pedestrians and drivers.

Four intersections along 261 in Kent are among the city’s top 20 high-crash intersections, according to data compiled by Bowling and the Kent engineering department. Where 261 crosses Franklin/Sunnybrook tops the list through 2015.

These stats are supported at a regional perspective with high-crash data compiled by AMATS spanning different communities in Northeast Ohio. On the latest report from 2015, 261 intersections appear 20 times on the list of high-crash intersections by community: 15 in Akron, three in Kent, one in Norton and one in Tallmadge.

With 30 seconds given for pedestrians to cross the 150 feet of highway, cars going 50 miles per hour — if abiding by the speed limit — pose a dangerous challenge for people walking to nearby businesses, like Marc’s grocery store and Mike’s Place, from their homes.

Fielding comments from drivers who enjoy traveling along 261, Bowling finds that most people simply aren’t aware of the dangers caused by the highway.

“There’s no one who is going to say, ‘I don’t want this to happen,’ what it usually is right now is, ‘I don’t know there’s a problem,’” he said. “When you say we’ve had fatalities on this roadway and a significant number of injury accidents in this corridor … we put that into context and they weigh it against the ability to drive without traffic and the scenery, they say, ‘OK, well what’s the solution?’”

After receiving complaints in the form of emails and council meeting talking points, a committee of about 30 people formed to assess the problems and evaluate the current state of 261.

The ultimate goal, as Bowling boils it down, is to address three areas of improvement that cover safety, community quality of life and potential economic growth and investment in the city.

“When we find the solution that hits all three of those, then we’ve found success,” he said.

Aside from the open committee meetings, efforts to crowdsource ideas for 261 solutions have come in the form of an emailing list (where anyone can be added to by reaching out to Bowling) and articles in the citywide newsletter, The Tree City Bulletin.

This level of pre-planning is typical for a project of this scale, Bowling said, his team looking to not rush a process that “takes time.”

“Any project that will have a major impact on the community will go through this kind of a process,” he said. “Usually when we get into something of this magnitude, it takes … a lot of talking, a lot of listening, a lot of thinking — a lot of different people to come up with what’s the best thing to do.”

On the committee is PARTA’s director of planning Katherine Manning. Although PARTA doesn’t have routes that wind along 261, some of their routes intersect the highway.

“Obviously any time that we can make any roadway have more transit-friendly amenities, that’s what we look for,” she said. “I think the group is looking to make the 261 corridor overall more pedestrian-friendly … making bikes, transit and pedestrians, as well as cars, all work in a more integrated way.”

Making it easier to cross 261 isn’t the only objective for planners. Since it was built as a limited-access highway with no hookups to utilities like sanitary, gas, water or electric along it, causing restrictions that inhibit economic development. “It creates a ring around the south side of Kent that the only way to get utilities or even to get to any location of 261 is where the side streets cross,” Bowling said.

Jim Bowling, City of Kent’s Superintendent of Engineering

What kind of potential growth adjacent to 261 is still up in the air — some want housing complexes and others envision industrial endeavors — one thing Bowling says the committee is adamant about is not wanting to see residential neighborhoods connected to the highway.

Although it’s too early to definitively say what a revisioning of the 261 corridor would be, Bowling has a few ideas of what the changes could look like.

One of those possibilities could be to reduce 261 from a four-lane highway to a two-lane curved road. “Instead of being straight and flat like a runway, we would put curves in it and induce some great changes with the intent to slow people down.” Bowling also hopes to reduce intersection from being as large as they are, looking toward roundabouts rather than regular, signalized intersections.

“Whenever you have a roadway where you can easily travel 70 miles per hour and it has a number of conflict points (intersections), you will have crash problems and a higher potential for injury or fatality,” Baker said.

Other items on the checklist include installing a bike trail system along the highway and possibly reforesting certain unneeded sections.

When the time comes for funding the desired project plan, Bowling has several sources he plans to utilize, including state and city highway safety program funds. Bowling anticipates a ballpark number for the cost and timeframe at $10-15 million and 10 years minimum, although it’s too soon to tell.

In the meantime, efforts to maintain 261 are already in the works, including a $1 million resurfacing (funding split between the city and state) set for next year, and a $1.8 million state project that repaired two bridges on 261 — even though for the sake of the revisioning, only one will be needed. “There was about $900,000 that’s really not effectively used,” Bowling said. “All that funding going to maintain something that’s not needed is not an effective use of anyone’s money.”

However, Bowling justifies the spending by outlining the costly repairs that would pop up before the lengthy project is completed.

“What if we don’t move forward?” he said. “What if we go through this planning stage and find out we just can’t get the funding to do what needs to be done? Now we have two bridges that need much more than $1.8 million to fix.”

As for the resurfacing of a highway that may be rendered new in a decade with the project, Bowling says it’s more cost effective to resolve pavement issues now rather than later on 261.

“If you wait too long, it costs much more to fix it because the problems go deeper — literally deeper into the pavement,” he said. “If we don’t fix it now, it’s going to cost a lot more later. We’re not far enough along in the process.”

For now, the city will continue to hold open meetings (not set on for regular times, rather scheduled when developments are made) and keep pondering potential solutions to the state Route 261 problem.

“We want everyone to benefit from this. The goal is to try to keep the things people like and create greater enhancements and improve safety,” Bowling said. “When you talk about changing stuff that will really change the fabric of what our community is, I’d like to think we want to get it right.”

Anna Huntsman, Benjamin VanHoose and Bruno Beidacki are City of Kent reporters. Contact them at ahuntsm1@kent.edu, bvanhoos@kent.edu and bbeidack@kent.edu.