Akron council reverses trail crossing decision
To tunnel or not to tunnel? The question, apparently, is finally answered.
The members of the Akron Borough Council, vexed for months over the controversy of the crossing of the Ephrata-to-Lititz rail trail at Main Street, ultimately came to the 6-to-1 conclusion a surface crossing was best.
Public response has been significant, including a large turnout at the Monday night council session. That night council members heard from residents who mostly favored a tunnel. After about 45 minutes of comments, council rendered its decision in favor of an at-grade crossing, a project estimated to cost half of tunnel construction.
A bid for Phase Two of Akron’s portion of the rail trail had been opened at a public meeting Thursday night. Phase Two runs from a point about midway between Fulton and Main streets on the former Reading and Columbia Railroad right-of-way. It extends to the borough line just west of the point where Vista Drive and Bomberger Road meet. Borough Manager Dan Guers reported that two bid packages had been picked up for this latest round of rail trail bidding, but only one had been returned.
That bidder is Horst Excavating, who offered three options for constructing and lighting the length of the Phase Two trail, plus taking it from one side of Main Street to the other. The cost for the tunnel option, the base bid, was $704,813. The first alternate option was for an at-grade crossing with the borough and others providing enough freelfill to slope the trail up to street level. That option was quoted at $355,459. The second alternate was for an at-grade crossing with the contractor being responsible for the placement of all fill and its compaction and grading. That was priced at $375,314.
Council member Jeff Shirk got the night’s discussion rolling with his motion to accept the second alternate, but with the addition of pedestrian activated flashing lights where the trail will cross Main Street, plus privacy screening for the owners of properties along the trail if they want it. Those additional costs would bring the total Phase Two outlay to $394,814.
The borough’s portion of any one of those approaches would have been reduced by a $102,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. So the borough’s portion of a tunnel crossing worked out to $602,813, while an at-grade crossing has a price tag of $292,814 after the DCNR grant is factored.
Glen Beiler, a Broad Street resident, has been an active tunnel proponent. He presented council with a petition signed by 114 Akron residents, including two former mayors and the current mayor, who favored a tunnel. Beiler, speaking on his own behalf and on behalf of the people who signed his petition, said safety should outweigh financial considerations in getting trail users across Main Street.
He also said filling in the ravine where trains once rolled under Main Street would destroy the historic value of that portion of the trail. And he said the citizens of Akron, at meeting after meeting, have given council a clear mandate to tunnel under Main Street. They did not have a mandate to fill in the ravine, he said.
A number of citizens echoed Beiler’s sentiments.
Danielle Bentley, who lives with her husband and four young children at the last house on Crest View Drive, added a couple of twists to the night’s discussion. She bought her house four years ago, she said, and her deed states that, since the Reading and Columbia Railroad abandoned its right of way, her property extends to the middle of that former right of way. She was concerned about her liability. And, since Crest View Drive is a dead end street, she wondered if council could be required to install a no-outlet sign where Crest View meets Main Street.
Council President Tom Murray and Kenelm Shirk III, solicitor, assured Bentley that the borough actually owned the right of way and that none of the property owners adjoining the trail bore liability for anything that might happen on it. Former council member John Williamson said that before he had temporarily moved to Asia four years ago, he had written quit-claim deeds for all the property owners along the right of way, but that nothing had been done with those deeds.
The no-outlet sign was pretty much a done deal as soon as Bentley asked for it, and Murray assured her it would be done.
Cheyenne Stauffer, who lives on Miller Road and whose property borders the rail trail route, pointed out that Main Street is a link in the unofficial Clay-to-Hinkeltown bypass that lets drivers get around Ephrata without getting snarled in the traffic at the increasingly congested intersection of Routes 322 and 222. Stauffer believes there is more than enough traffic already on Main Street, and there will be more down the road.
There was a great deal of discussion about safety. Police Chief Tom Zell said that in his years in Akron he could not remember an accident in the stretch of road that is visible from the point where the rail trail will cross Main Street. He did not offer an opinion as to whether or not it would be a safe place to cross, but he did say there is no data available.
Following the comments, Murray called for a roll-call vote on Jeff Shirk’s motion. A number of council members talked about their struggles in coming to a decision on how to vote. Earl Shirk expressed it perhaps most succinctly when he said that if aesthetics were the only issue, he would vote in a heartbeat for a tunnel.
“But the numbers are so far apart,” he said. He thanked Glen Beiler for his work in getting 114 signatures on a petition for a tunnel, but he said he doesn’t feel it represents the 3,000 Akron taxpayers who will foot the rail trail bill. He said he felt fiscal responsibility had to take precedence and voted in favor of Jeff Shirk’s motion as did council members Justin Gehman, John Taylor, Perry Lorah, Jeff Shirk and Tom Murray. The lone dissenting vote came from Daniel McCormac.
Following the vote, the meeting room pretty much cleared out, and council business returned to routine matters. At the beginning of the meeting, Mayor John McBeth conducted a swearing-in ceremony for Chad Snader, who has been hired to return the borough’s police department to its full complement of five full-time and three part-time officers.
Dick Wanner can be reached at email@example.com, or by phone at 717-419-4703.