Akron Sets Out to Dismantle a Giant Road

Akron's Innerbelt Freeway carries about a quarter of the traffic it was built to accommodate. The city wants to convert it into a local road. Image: Alps Roads
Akron’s Innerbelt Freeway carries about a quarter of the traffic it was built to accommodate. The city wants to decommission the road and build on the land. Image: Alps Roads

Some places just talk about prioritizing transit and walking over highway construction. But Akron, Ohio, is putting its money where its mouth is.

The Akron region will spend more money this year to reduce road capacity than to add it, according to Jason Segedy, head of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study, the regional planning organization. Of the 39 projects approved for funding this year, the largest is $5 million to decommission a portion of State Route 59, the Akron Innerbelt Freeway.

That project will account for 17 percent of AMATS’s 2014 budget. That is a portion of the 74 percent of AMATS’s budget is being spent on maintaining existing roads, while 14 percent will go toward adding bike and pedestrian infrastructure. And 12 percent will go to projects that add road capacity.

Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown -- all bright red -- have shed population in recent decades as the region has sprawled. Image: NEOSCC (Click to enlarge.)
Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown — all bright red — have shed population in recent decades as the region has sprawled. Image: NEOSCC (Click to enlarge.)

That’s not an accident. Leaders at AMATS are deliberately attempting to control the size of the region’s road infrastructure — and for good reason. At the height of Akron’s reign as the center of the American rubber industry, the city had almost 300,000 residents. Today, the home of Goodyear Tires is down to less than 200,000.

Although many Akronites have moved to the suburbs, the whole of northeast Ohio is losing population as well. The area, which includes Akron, Cleveland, and Youngstown, peaked in the 1970s, and has declined 7 percent since, according to recent research from the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium, the region’s sustainable communities planning effort.

But even as the region bled population, it continued to expand its highways. Northeast Ohio has added 323 highway lane miles since 1990, even though the regional population continually declined, according to NEOSCC.

Most shrinking regions haven’t yet come to the same realization Akron has — that continuing to expand its infrastructure in the face of declining population and revenues is a recipe for disaster.

Segedy called this year’s budget proportions “a start, in a shrinking region.” “Maintaining the roads we already have and creating transportation alternatives are the highest priorities for Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study,” he said.

AMATS uses a scoring process to rate projects submitted by local entities for funding. The way the process was designed, communities that submit projects to expand roads are at “a pretty big disadvantage,” Segedy said, and they respond accordingly.

The Akron Innerbelt Freeway was a product of the old-school build-it-and-we-will-grow mindset. When it was built as part of the urban renewal era in the 1960s, local leaders predicted traffic would quadruple from 1947 levels. But what has actually occurred is closer to the reverse.

Akron’s Innerbelt is notoriously underused. This six-lane, limited-access highway was designed to carry at least 100,000 vehicles a day. Instead it has been seeing a maximum of about 25,000, according to Segedy.

The road is aging too, and it’s in need of costly repairs to bridges and ramps. Akron’s longtime Mayor Don Plusquellic first came up with the idea to remove the highway more than a decade ago, after visiting Milwaukee and seeing the work being done to tear down the Park East Freeway.

The city hopes to leverage this first $5 million investment to decommission the sunken highway completely and redevelop the roadway. AMATS’s contribution will help repair the service roads along the stretch closest to downtown. Eventually Akron wants to use the service roads exclusively to carry traffic through the corridor, while seeing if investors will be interested in using the roadway space for development. It hopes to develop the area into a biomedical corridor. That would leave about two dozen acres newly open for development between downtown and the city’s west side. Akron is seeking money from the state and other sources to complete the project.

  • Tim

    I’m glad to see AMATS leading the way in reducing road capacity and, by association, maintenance costs in our region. Hopefully, given its change of leadership and mission, NOACA will follow suit. Back in November, TomTom released its review of congestion levels in metro areas throughout the US. It found that, of the 61 cities studied, Cleveland had the second lowest level of congestion (Akron was not studied).

    http://www.gcbl.org/blog/2013/11/are-the-grumbellies-driving-the-opportunity-corridor

    On average, Cleveland’s roads are at 10% of their designed capacity. Even at its peak, road usage levels reach just 25% of capacity. Compare that to LA and San Francisco, where usage averages 36% and 35%, respectively. Yet, inexplicably, freeway miles per capita actually increased by 21% from 0.670 in 1999 to 0.816 by 2012. Obviously some of that is due to population loss, but much of it is the result of poor transportation planning that priorities new highway construction regardless of demonstrated need. Thankfully, AMATS is actually taking a stand to nudge our region into the 21st century.

  • RRBike

    I just hope Akron doesn’t make the same mistake Milwaukee did in its replacement for the Park East. While land was opened for development, there is nothing pedestrian or bicycle friendly about the W McKinley/E Knapp corridor. It was supposed to be a pleasant boulevard, but is only a high speed freeway entrance/off ramp.

  • Moses von Cleaveland

    Has NOACA weighed in the Opportunity Corridor thruway?

  • Andy

    I Hope they make it a Blvd with some sort of rail based public transportation!

  • douglasawillinger

    It looks like they are throwing in the towel regarding economic decline.

  • Akron’s not throwing the towel. They’re just trying to be responsible and make realistic projections. Do you think 30 years of adding highway lanes stopped Akron from shrinking? It only hastened a lot of unhealthy trends.

  • Square West

    Before drawing major judgments about the region from this, it should be mentioned this freeway WAS NEVER FINISHED. It is half a freeway. It terminates by dumping traffic onto a road on the edge of downtown, and they also never completed putting in all of the on/off ramps so it forces half the traffic that would use it to ride alongside it on access roads while staring longingly at all the open lanes below. It’s great if you want to use it to get on N/W bound I-77/76, or from S/E bound I-77/76 to the west side of Downtown. If you are already N/W bound on I-77/76 and would like to catch the Innerbelt good luck, or coming at it from any other direction for that matter, as they didn’t get around to building the ramps. THAT is why it is at 1/4 capacity. If it was a 77/76 to 8 connector as it as intended to be the utilization would likely be the projected 100,000 cars.

  • Mike

    I am glad that AMATS is taking about the interbelt. Effectively it does nothing to connect the city and in my opinion is separates the city. From downtown over the bridge into west hill and highland square to Edgewood and the zoo neighborhood. These areas are effectively “cutoff” from the downtown culturally. Akron feels less like a city and more like an amalgamation of roads that lead to different economic sectors. I would like to see less of this and I think this is a step in the right direction.

  • Kim E.

    I don’t think so, they are looking at how to build the economy rather than throwing money into a road that is underused and as someone said, incompleted. Encouraging development is hardly throwing in the towel, and that stretch of road doesn’t do anything for business, it in essence allows people to bypass the local economy.

  • Nate White

    I haven’t had my coffee yet, but is AMATS working on a 117% budget according to that third paragraph?

  • thestile1972

    We love our city here in Akron, and believe in it. Giving up is not in our vocabulary. We survived the loss of 50,000 rubber and tire jobs, and have already turned the economic corner in many ways, compared to a lot other Rust Belt cities. Those of us that stayed here are in it for the long haul. I was born here and they are going to bury me here – hopefully a long time from now.

    This project is not throwing in the towel. In fact, keeping an underutilized road (that should never have been built in the first place, IMHO) that will cost tens of millions of dollars to maintain into the future – that would be “throwing in the towel”.

    This project, in many ways, is the essence of sustainable transportation planning. Taking an unproductive liability “off of the books”, opening up urban land for redevelopment, and knitting neighborhoods back together that should never have been separated in the first place.

    Like any project, there will be hurdles, challenges, and difficulties. But, rest assured, the City of Akron is doing the right thing for its residents here.

  • Ok. Jason clarified: “The 17% for the Innerbelt is part of the 74% for maintenance; so the budget is 74+14+12 = 100.” I altered the explanation a little in the story.

  • thestile1972

    Nate, this is Jason Segedy from AMATS. Here is how the budget numbers in the third paragraph break down:

    74% for maintenance + 14% for bike & pedestrian projects + 12% for additional road capacity = 100%

    The 17% devoted to the repurposing/reconfiguration of the Akron Innerbelt Freeway is included in the 74% devoted to maintenance, with the rationale that the project is actually saving millions of dollars in maintenance costs long term.

    Hope this clears up the confusion!

  • thestile1972

    This is Jason Segedy from AMATS. Thanks for your comment. Quite true. The freeway was originally envisioned as a 20-mile long regional freeway from Barberton to Kent that would cut from SW to NE through the Greater Akron area.

    Not long after this road was planned (in the 1960s), three things happened: the oil crisis, the economic downturn of the late 70s, and the collapse of the rubber and tire industry.

    Overly-optimistic forecasts of population and employment (that drove the perception of need for the freeway in the first place) were scaled back. So, the regional freeway concept was scrapped and became simply an inter-city freeway to connect I-76/77 to State Route 8, as you said.

    But there is a lot more backstory than what you shared here. While it is true that there was a perceived legitimate transportation purpose for building the freeway; a large part of the reason that any of it was built was so-called “urban renewal” and “slum clearance”. Poor (and largely black) neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for the road, and much of the neighborhood that it destroyed was re-named “Opportunity Park” – an Orwellian name if I’ve ever heard one.

    Perhaps in keeping with Karma, even the scaled-back concept for the road failed to come to fruition. The project encountered additional cost-overruns, environmental issues, and engineering problems throughout the late 70s and early 80s, and it wasn’t until the mid-80s that it even connected to I-76/77. Up until that point, Akron literally had a “road to nowhere” – a 2-mile freeway that didn’t connect to a freeway at either end.

    The idea of connecting the NE end of the Innerbelt to State Route 8 was abandoned in the 1980s. The road (and its interchange with SR 8) would have had to traverse the Little Cuyahoga Valley on structure – i.e. on elevated bridges), and the cost of making that connection today would literally be a billion dollars – to say nothing of the negative social and environmental costs.

    Thankfully, with 20/20 hindsight, the City of Akron has wisely made the determination that we simply do not need the road capacity and that there are better uses for the land. It’s a smart decision – instead of doubling-down on a bad idea, we are learning from the past.

  • Nate White

    It does. Thank you, Jason!

  • Nate White

    Thanks, Angie!

  • If the morons that designed that stretch would have build it to accommodate easy traffic traveling west on 76, it would have had a ton more use. Getting off on Dart and traveling through the lights has always been a pain in the a$$. AND, why not push the use of the buildings that are already downtown, fix them up as oppose to build more and new. This is a huge waste of $$ if you ask me.

  • Square West

    Thanks for the informative post Jason. It’s encouraging to see someone in the position to make changes noticing that outbuilding without growth is merely construction at the expense of our neighbors (and, in the situation of roads, ourselves as a region). Hopefully your example can be duplicated by those in control of retail, etc. development as well.

  • thestile1972

    Thank you for caring about the issue, as well! Hugely important.

    Check out my blog post on the issue of outbuilding without growth if you get a chance:

    http://thestile1972.tumblr.com/post/71691657173/today-is-yesterdays-tomorrow

  • Sean Carder

    Jason, are there any plans to reuse elements of the innerbelt for future development? This may seem like a stupid question, but the innerbelt along with cascade plaza while completely, ineffective is some of my favorite landscape architecture in the city. It would be sad to loose those modern design elements the same way we lost the structures they replaced.

  • thestile1972

    Good question, Sean. The general concept is to preserve the service roads that parallel the freeway mainline, and then incrementally repurpose/reuse the mainline as demand for the land materializes.

    I don’t think the City has worked out a detailed vision or comprehensive plan for the land that would be freed-up, since this project is still a couple of years away.

    For what it’s worth, I agree that it is important to integrate whatever is built into the fabric of the city (both with the West Hill neighborhood to the west, and with downtown to the east.)

    I’m not as fond of Cascade Plaza as you are, but as you stated, it is something that needs to be considered carefully in terms of compatibility with future land uses. Not sure if you are aware, but Cascade Plaza is presently being “greened” to soften some of the brutalist/Soviet-style look of the space, so that it can gain some warmth and become more appealing as a public space.

    It will also be important to ensure (as some commentators have suggested) that the new development(s) are urban, rather than suburban in character, and that the new roads and streets (if and when they come) are walkable, bikeable, and transit-friendly.

  • Evan Martin

    This sounds like wonderful news, however what I’ve not read in this discussion is about the traffic backups that we do get, especially in the mornings and afternoons. This road may not carry what it’s capacity is, but it definitely alleviated some congestion that occurs at the central interchange. What are Akron’s plans for that? I see the city throwing millions of dollars at it to close the Innerbelt, but haven’t noticed the city investing in ways to better manage traffic in the area.

  • PhilipGlassRules

    The reason it doesn’t carry the traffic it was intended to is that it was supposed to extend to route 8 but wasn’t finished. Also, there are no direct connections from southbound to eastbound I-76 and westbound I-76 to northbound.

  • PhilipGlassRules

    Exactly!

  • PhilipGlassRules

    When are you clowns going to learn how to properly upgrade the four critical freeway to freeway interchanges in Akron? (I-76/I-77, I-76/I-77?SR 8, I-277/US 224/I-76, and I-77/I-277/US 224)?

  • PhilipGlassRules

    Where are all these new Cleveland freeways located? I never seem to find new roads around here. By the way, EVERYTHING you buy at your local grocery store gets there by truck/highway.

  • Twilightstar

    This is a road that never should have been built. I watched as it ruined my beautiful, close to downtown, middle class and working people neighborhood of nice homes, families and apartments. We were told it was a good thing when my parents’ home was left perched near a cliff. Many of our neighbors fought hard and got money for their property and left. We all new it was a mistake and THEN to listen ad nauseum for years about how “we need more people to move downtown!” after the very same officials allowed it to SHOVE families and homeowners out of downtown and ruin a good neighborhood. Yeah right. Will the millions of tons of dirt be put back I wonder? I have pictures and beautiful memories of what it used to be so I’m good.

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