Long road ahead: Kent in early stages of state Route 261 improvement plan


State Route 261 sign by Mike’s Place in Kent. The road has four of Kent’s top 20 high-crash intersections.

What was once wishful thinking on the parts of local engineers in the 1960s is now the task at hand for James Bowling, Kent’s current superintendent of engineering. The intentions behind the design of state Route 261, which connects Kent to Akron and other nearby cities and townships, belonged to an era that anticipated a significant growth in Northeast Ohio that never showed up.

Route 261 charts as a dangerous roadway for both drivers and pedestrians, and potential solutions are now in the works, possibly leading to a large-scale restructuring similar to the ongoing Summit Street Improvement Project.

“I think the general concept of building a highway from Akron to and around Kent that pretty much parallels (Interstate) 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.”

The Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS) conducted research into Route 261 and other roadways. Its director, Curtis Baker, sees a similar pattern 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, Route 261 stretches past the Kent State’s Schoonover Stadium 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, but the number of commuters who utilize it has diminished in the last decade.

Using records filed away from previous studies, Bowling and his team can map the downward traffic trend. One section of Route 261 went from 19,000 cars a day in 1996 to 13,000 today. While these stats show some inconsistencies — studies from some years were conducted while Kent State was not in session — Bowling is sure the 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 is the safety of both pedestrians and drivers.

Four intersections along Route 261 in Kent are among the city’s top 20 high-crash intersections, according to data compiled by Bowling and the Kent engineering department. The intersection of Route 261 crosses Franklin/Sunnybrook, west of state Route 43, tops the list through 2015.

Intersections along Route 261 appeared on AMATS high-crash reports 20 times in 2015: 15 times in Akron, three in Kent and one in Norton and Tallmadge each.

The highway poses problems for crossing pedestrians, too. There are 30 seconds for pedestrians to cross 150 feet of highway. Cars traveling at 50 miles per hour — if abiding by the speed limit — pose a dangerous challenge for people walking from their homes to nearby businesses like Marc’s grocery store and Mike’s Place.

Fielding comments from drivers who travel along Route 261, Bowling found that most people simply aren’t aware of the dangers caused by the highway’s design.

“There’s no one who is going to say, ‘I don’t want this to happen,’” he said. “What it usually is right now is, ‘I don’t know there’s a problem.’ 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 Route 261.

The ultimate goal, as Bowling put it, 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 Route 261 have come in the form of an emailing list 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 doesn’t want to 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.”

Katherine Manning, the director of planning for Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority (PARTA), is on the committee. Although the transit agency doesn’t have routes that wind along Route 261, some of their routes intersect the highway.

“Obviously, any time we can make any roadway have more transit-friendly amenities, that’s what we look for,” Manning said. “I think the group is looking (into) making bikes, transit and pedestrians, as well as cars, all work in a more integrated way.”

Making it easier for pedestrians to cross Route 261 isn’t the only objective for the planners. It was built as a limited-access highway with no hookups to utilities like sanitary, gas, water or electric, 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.

The kind of potential growth opportunities that could develop adjacent to 261 are still up in the air. Some want housing complexes and others envision industrial endeavors, but one thing Bowling said 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 restructuring of the Route 261 corridor would be, Bowling has a few ideas of what the changes could look like.

One of those possibilities could be to reduce Route 261 from a four-lane highway to a two-lane, curved road with the intent to slow people down along the road.

Bowling also hopes to reduce the size of the intersections from being as large as they are, replacing them with 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, 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 plans to utilize several sources, including state and city highway safety program funds. Bowling anticipates a ballpark number cost of $10-15 million and a timeframe of 10 years minimum, although he said it’s too soon to tell.

In the meantime, efforts to maintain Route 261 are already in the works, including a $1 million resurfacing set for next year, with funding split between the city and state.

“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 said it’s more cost-effective to resolve pavement issues now rather than later.

“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 — they will be scheduled as developments are made — and keep pondering potential solutions to the Route 261 problem.

“We want everyone to benefit from this,” Bowling said. “The goal is to try to keep the things people like and create greater enhancements and improve safety. 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 [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected].