Kent residents weigh in on North Mantua Street renovations, years away

North Mantua Street in Kent. Image via Google

About 100 people, most of them Kent residents and area officials, gathered May 30 at Kent’s Theodore Roosevelt High School to tell Kent City Engineer Jim Bowling just what’s wrong with the stretch of North Mantua Street from the high school north to the city limits.

After all, Bowling said, if the city is going to fix the road, it should be aware of what people believe the problems are.

Unfortunately, every solution meant to improve conditions for motorists negatively impacts pedestrians and bicyclists, and vice versa. Motorists, Bowling said, will subconsciously go as fast as they feel comfortable going, all but ignoring speed limits and traffic signals.

The solution?

“You make it uncomfortable,” he said.

Narrower lanes. Fewer lanes. Designing boulevards instead of multi-lane roads. Installing roundabouts. None of which are on the drawing board right now, because the city is not at the drawing board stage, Bowling assured the crowd.

Each solution comes with a tradeoff.

“You may want to improve pedestrian access, but adding a crosswalk across two lanes, 54 feet, is unsafe,” Bowling said.

Some attendees suggested adding a bike lane, but Bowling noted that would mean widening the road, which would make it even less safe. The city could create a hike/bike trail next to North Mantua Street, a plan which Bowling said the schools and Davey Tree, both of which have frontage on the street, support.

“The challenge is to come up with a solution that works for all of you,” he said, directly addressing the crowd.

As it is, where sidewalks even exist, it is legal for micro-mobility units, aka e-bike and e-scooter riders to use them as long as they travel 12 mph or less, Bowling said. That, one attendee noted, will be difficult as e-bikes and e-scooters become more prevalent.

River Bend resident John Smith focused on making the main high school driveway a one-way entrance, with the exit at the natatorium driveway, which lets out onto North Mantua across from River Bend Boulevard. He also suggested allowing motorists to only turn right as they leave the high school, and moving the traffic light at that driveway to the natatorium/Riverbend entrance/egress.

“We would have a red light to go in and out. Going north and south in the rush hours is horrific for us,” he said.

River Bend resident Howard Boyle agreed.

“The entire problem could have been solved by putting a traffic signal at River Bend,” he insisted.

River Bend developer and former Portage County commissioner Chris Smeiles said the original plan was for River Bend Boulevard to be farther north, “but at the city’s insistence we moved it south to line up with the high school.”

He said he expressed concern about the need for a traffic light at River Bend Boulevard, and recalled that then city manager Jim Bacon and city engineer Al Brubaker promised one would be installed.

“Twenty years later we’re still waiting,” Smeiles said.

Bowling said the city, following Ohio traffic codes, determined in 2000 that the traffic signal was “not warranted.” The city revisited the issue six years later, with the same conclusion.

Vicki Emig, also a River Bend resident, worried about high school kids crossing North Mantua to and from her neighborhood. Without crosswalks or a light, it’s simply dangerous, she said.

Additional concerns were motorists speeding on North Mantua, widening and improving the sidewalks along the road, difficulty turning left out of and into Davey Tree’s headquarters, and aesthetic improvements to Kent’s northern gateway.

Other attendees focused on motorists ignoring school zone speed limits without fear of repercussion, kids dodging traffic as they cross North Mantua Street at both the main high school drive and the natatorium drive, and increased traffic from Davey Tree’s seed campus.

The sudden and uncontrolled merge from four lanes to two at the Kent-Franklin Township border, conflicts between motorists exiting the natatorium drive and those exiting River Bend, and the lack of crosswalks in the area were also points of concern.

Others spoke of buses and traffic turning into the high school blocking the intersection and causing traffic tie-ups. Safety concerns were also raised about motorists entering and exiting Standing Rock Cemetery, located directly across from the high school. Those motorists, especially if they are part of a funeral procession or are just leaving Standing Rock after a funeral, tend to drive more slowly, some attendees noted.

What about building a pedestrian bridge across North Mantua Street, one person asked?

“Most people will walk the shortest distance possible. If someone can walk from here to there, and they don’t have to go uphill or downhill [along access ramps], they’re just going to walk,” Bowling countered.

The only way to ensure such a bridge would be used would be to install fencing along North Mantua Street so people would have no choice, he said.

All told, the city is looking at a three to four year timeline, first to study the plan and design “something,” and then to find grants to help fund what Bowling anticipates will be a $6 million to $8 million project.

Ending the North Mantua Street paving project at the high school was intentional. It turns out that although grants do exist, the city is more likely to get them if the roadway is in poor condition, Bowling said.

Though River Bend resident Gary Garlesky said the proposed timeline wasn’t the answer he was looking for, Debbie Smeiles (Chris Smeiles’ wife) preferred to look at the bright side. As long as the potholes persist, motorists will be forced to slow down, she laughed.

Bowling asked for volunteers to serve on a citizens advisory committee which will help city officials devise a solution for the area. The city will also hire a consultant who will work with both the committee and city officials to start the planning process necessary to even begin the project.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.