Tunnel vision in Akron

By on January 15, 2014

Council gives final OK to take trail under Main St.

Though it only takes a few seconds to cross Main Street in Akron, it’s taken quite some to decide how that will be done when using the new rail trail.

Akron Borough Council decided Monday night that those using the trail will cross Main Street using a tunnel, as opposed to road level access.

Mayor John McBeth cast the deciding vote in a packed council chambers as more than 70 residents applauded the decision.

Prior to the vote, Council President Thomas Murray gave each resident a chance to speak. Of those that spoke, about 50 were in favor of the tunnel, ten were in favor of the at-grade option and seven or eight were undecided.

Although cost seemed to be a concern, safety, traffic and privacy all seemed to be the more dominating factors.

The cost for a tunnel, in the form of a box culvert and all the other trail work involved, is estimated at $338,000, compared to about $262,000 for an at-grade crossing.

Even though total cost estimates for a tunnel run at least $80,000 more than the at-grade crossing option, safety and privacy were still a priority for those in favor of a tunnel.

Residents who live along Miller Road cited privacy concerns in their backyards and safety for their children who play outside. Other residents had general concerns about the safety of walkers and bikers on Main Street with the traffic, as an at-grade crossing would have included the narrowing of the road and the placing of a “speed bump.”

The council offered their reasoning behind their votes.

Councilman Dan McCormac said he believes the only feasible option, despite the additional costs or temporary disruption of local traffic for the long-term benefit for the local homeowners and safety, is the grade separated option.

“Also, I believe the grade separated option is the suitable solution because of the increased invasion of privacy for the local homeowners, as well of the increased risk they now inherit because of the daily use of the trail by the public in their backyards,” he said. “Though this finished project will be a beautiful addition to our town, we must not always consider the bottom line dollar amount.

Councilman Jeff Shirk said he is not so much worried about the money as the safety issues.

“If there is an accident and the emergency crews have to get to the tunnel, how are they going to access it?” he asked. “I don’t think the tunnel will be big enough for an ambulance to go through.

Councilman Shirk said he has real concerns with traffic on Main Street. He said when you look at sheer numbers of traffic on Main Street, and also on Rothsville Road and Newport Road, which is close to 20,000 vehicles a day, and “they aren’t going under, they are going over.”

“I vote for at-grade,” he said.

Earl Shirk said it is his first official meeting, so he does not have a lot of history.

“But based on the numbers and information that I got, I came into this meeting favoring the at-grade,” he said. “I have heard the concerns and I think they are overwhelming in favor of the tunnel. That said, if it comes to vote tonight, I don’t believe, in the interest of fiscal responsibility, I could vote for something that we don’t have accurate numbers of.”

“I do have concerns about the cost, I do have concerns about Main Street and the traffic walking along Main Street,” he said. “If the numbers can be made to work reasonable, if the numbers are $80,000, I think that’s a no-brainer.”

Perry Lorah said when he came into the meeting, he had been hearing people talking about price and cost, but now he’s hearing a different thing.

“Now I’m hearing, feeling, a different thing, traffic, safety and privacy,” he said. “I don’t have all the final numbers, I wish I would have. Now I’m leaning more toward the tunnel. You guys voted us in here, we have to listen to your ideas, too.”

Councilman John Taylor said he came into the meeting and was for at-grade.

“I still stand at grade,” he said “(We) have to make a decision. At this point in time I’m at-grade, but won’t be totally close-minded.”

McBeth said he was part of the feasibility study that was conducted years ago and it was recommended the trail be safe and user-friendly.

“So quite obviously the answer is going to be that we go under,” he said.

McBeth said another concern is to try and retain as much of the historic railroad structure as possible.

The mayor said he rides 500 miles a year on his bicycle and sees a lot of children riding. He said he knows their parents would appreciate the safety features. He knows not every intersection will be treated this way, “but we have the opportunity to make one intersection on a busy highway safe.”

Murray said he is also in favor of the tunnel.

“I am in favor of working with the original design and going under Main Street,” he said. “We have an obligation to prepare for the generations that are going to follow us. We need to make sure what we design today works for a long time into the future.”

With a roll call vote, Councilmen Murray, Lorah and McCormac voted in favor of the tunnel, and Councilmen Jeff Shirk, Taylor and Earl Shirk voted for the at-grade crossing. Councilman Justin Gehman did not attend the meeting due to personal reasons which meant McBeth cast the deciding vote.

Rick Jackson of ELA Engineering was hired by the borough to plan the rail-trail. He gave a brief update on Phase Two of the project, which includes the Main Street tunnel. He said it is the section from about 400 feet east of Main Street to the southwest part of the borough where it borders Ephrata Township.

According to Jackson, bids will be due March 28 and they will have until mid-May to review them.

The project was delayed in August when Akron, along with Ephrata Borough and Ephrata Township, rejected the bids for Phase One, which includes the part of the trail from Pointview Avenue in Ephrata into Akron.

Jackson said those bids will be accepted for that section, along with bids for Phase Two. He predicts that construction should be completed sometime in September or October.

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