Summit Street improvement still in planning stage

Allison Smith

Navigating Summit Street is dangerous business. Drivers have to maneuver around potholes, deal with opposite-timed traffic lights and keep an eye out for pedestrians who decide jaywalking is cool.

With classes changing about every 50 minutes, sporting events and rush hour at 5 p.m., things on Summit Street can get quite congested.

So in 2007, Kent’s Engineering, Fire and Police departments, along with Kent State, PARTA and Kent residents, began discussing how to fix this problem. In 2008, the city submitted an application for $11 million in federal money for the project.

“We were successful in getting the funding,” said Kent City Engineer James Bowling. “Our purpose when we started this was safety, congestion and access management.”

Bowling said the Engineering Department and Kent State worked together to draw up several options for Summit Street. They then took the plans to a citizens advisory committee meeting to get feedback and come up with the best way to meet the goals of the project.

“We’re finding out the scope of what to build with a set budget,” Bowling said. “We don’t want to just do a road.”

So what’s the plan?

He said one of the main goals is to widen Summit Street in order to add turning and bike lanes, but the appearance of a wider road causes speeding problems. He used Fairchild Avenue as an example.

“The 85 percentile speed, which means 85 percent of the drivers on that road, is over 40 miles per hour,” Bowling said.

To combat faster speeds, Bowling said the key is to create the feel of a narrower road. This can be accomplished with a median, which also helps and adds to the aesthetic. There are two options for a median: smaller island medians with left turning lanes, or a continuous median that runs from Lincoln Street to Ted Boyd Drive.

“People jaywalking causes potential for more accidents,” he said. “We want to pull the sidewalks back and add more crosswalks to encourage pedestrians to cross where it’s safer.”

However, he said, adding the island median with turning lanes can cause problems with line of sight for drivers.

“We’ve seen accidents on state Route 261 at Mogadore and Sunnybrook because of people, with an extra-large median, trying to turn left don’t have a good line of sight,” Bowling said. “If you’re coming north or south out of one of these driveways and you go to look to your right to see if you can go and the median has any trees or shrubbery, it can inhibit your line of sight.”

The continuous median option creates a safer environment for pedestrians and through drivers, but makes it more difficult for those trying to make a left turn, said Jeff Noble, manager for the highway design department at URS Corporation.

Noble, who designed the roundabout at state Route 261 and Howe Road, helped design the plans for the Summit Street improvements.

“Now if you live in Fraternity Circle and you want to head to the west, well, you’ve got to go down the street and around the block,” he said. “You have to come to a signalized intersection, get your turn arrow and then turn.”

Noble said it’s all about trade-offs. Those who make the final decision of how the road will look must guess whether the inconvenience is worth the safety and better aesthetics the median creates.

Because the continuous median would make it difficult for motorists to make left turns, Noble said another option would be to install a hybrid one- and two-lane roundabout at the Summit Street and Risman Drive intersection and a single-lane roundabout at the Summit Street and Ted Boyd Drive intersection. This, however, creates problems for emergency vehicles such as fire trucks and ambulances.

“We have to teach everybody to drive every year because we have a new batch of freshmen that come in every year,” Fire Chief James Williams said. “They’re not used to the traffic patterns in town and so every year we’re going to struggle with the new students learning.”

Williams said the proposed intersections would have an Opticom system, which allows emergency workers to turn the light green and keep traffic flowing.

“Our fear with the roundabouts, and I’m not anti-roundabout, I think in certain cases they work very well, but I don’t think they should be used on what are considered primary response routes,” he said.

Brian Smith, director of planning at PARTA, believes differently. He thinks the roundabouts will help with the flow of traffic, even in an emergency situation.

“There are concerns about pedestrians and cars and what about the emergency vehicles, but essentially they just won’t be there,” he said. “Now, if they have an emergency coming through there, if they have one car in front of them that doesn’t know what to do in a roundabout, I believe that car would get out of the way pretty quickly.”

Other issues with the roundabouts would be bicycle use and pedestrian crossing. Bowling said they would not be able to carry bike lanes around the roundabout because it would defeat the purpose. Bikes would potentially get in the way of drivers and disrupt traffic.

The roundabouts also pose a problem with pedestrian safety. Without a light to cross at, pedestrians would not have a protected phase while crossing the roundabout. Noble said studies have shown pedestrians are generally safe while crossing a single-lane roundabout, but data is inconclusive for two-lane roundabouts.

“We are heavily concerned that students will cross through the center of the roundabout,” Bowling said.

No easy solution

Bowling said everyone — Kent residents, PARTA, Kent City Police, Fire and EMS, the engineering department and Kent State — needs to agree on the final plans before any construction can begin, but he said the improvements probably won’t begin until 2014.

University Architect Tom Euclide said he is not sure he’s ready to determine which option would be best for Kent State.

“Both of them have benefits and both of them have disadvantages,” he said. “Just on purely vision and dynamic that will be created with the roundabouts and the medians, I’d pick that, but there’s a lot of other issues there that we have to balance. I’m waiting to hear more input.”

Contact Allison Smith at [email protected].