This is Akron: City Faces Challenges Catching Up on Road Repairs
Jamilya Maxwell stuck her hand into the dirty water of a giant pothole in Highland Square a couple of weeks ago.
It was wrist deep.
Then she kneeled and spread her arms. But the pothole — in the shape of a giant, flopping goldfish — was wider.
Her boyfriend, Cameron Blakey, took pictures and submitted a claim to the city for $163, the cost of a new tire on his 2011 Mercedes-Benz.
“I love Akron," Maxwell said. "... We’re actually looking to move to Highland Square because it’s the only artsy-fartsy area around here."
After living on Romig Road, Blakey and Maxwell have been staying with family in Mogadore since October while they save money to move to Highland Square.
But now the couple — Maxwell, 36, does business on etsy and eBay and Blakey, 41, is a comic book artist — is torn. They see the smooth-paved streets of the surrounding suburbs where friends and family live. And this winter, they saw Akron streets still buried after a major snowstorm while streets in Copley, Fairlawn and Bath were clear and dry.
“So do we want to live somewhere where we can walk to where all the action is in Highland Square, or go to the suburbs where we’ll be bored, but have none of these (road) problems?" Maxwell asked.
Decades of disinvestment
In interviews with dozens of people who work in Akron and polling data from hundreds of long-time residents, nothing proved as bothersome as the city's crumbling streets. It's a problem inherited by decades of disinvestment.
Thanks to a .25 percent income tax hike voters passed in 2017, the city will again repave 54 miles of road this year, or three times what was repaved in 2017. At that rate, city-commissioned studies say it'll still take more than a decade to catch up.
“You can’t turn a battleship around on a dime," Akron Public Service Director John Moore said in an email to the Beacon Journal. "We have hit the bottom of the curve and are now trending in a positive direction. It will take time to get that ship fully turned around, but we will get there.”
Sins of the past
Hunter Morrison, a senior fellow in urban studies at Cleveland State, said Rust Belt cities like Akron were overbuilt for population swells a century ago. Having shrunk, the cities now struggle to fix sprawling roads and aging infrastructure.
"You're paying for the sins of your past," Morrison said of not planning ahead when times were good. Weakening economies, declining tax revenue and population loss have delayed public improvements until they cannot be ignored.
"So your asking today’s taxpayers to pay for yesterday’s sins without yesterday’s tax revenue to pay for it," Morrison said.
A tax hike with broad support?
Residents overwhelmingly voted for the 2017 tax hike for police, fire and roads improvements. Nearly 70 percent of the city's income taxes are paid by more than 90,000 people who can't vote in Akron but commute there for work.
The tax hike generates about $15 million a year, allowing the city to spend $7 million instead of the $2 million to $3 million it's thrown at resurfacing annually the past 20 years. But studies show even more — $10 million annually — is needed for a decade to bring the average condition of Akron's streets just barely to what private consultants would rate as "good."
City spokeswoman Ellen Lander Nischt said city engineers "simply need additional years of data" before predicting whether the roads will be "good" when children born today get their driver's licenses.
Lander Nischt said the city “diligently looks for all available funding sources” for transportation projects.
Akron: an incubator for potholes
Jim Hall, Akron’s acting manager of Public Works, said Northeast Ohio is unfortunately a perfect place to breed and grow potholes with its many annual freeze-and-thaw cycles. Tires from cars, trucks and other vehicles push water from rain or melted snow into tiny crevices in pavement where it freezes and expands.
“Think of how water in ice cube trays expands when it freezes,” Hall said.
That weakens the structure of roads until they finally crumble under the weight of traffic, causing sudden potholes that can quickly grow.
Repair crews are always filling potholes reported on Akron’s 3-1-1 information line, Hall said. And the city this month released a list of 131 to 157 roads and side streets it hopes to resurface in part or in whole in 2019, depending on the deal it gets on asphalt.
Hall knows some will be disappointed by what’s not on the list.
“Exchange (Street) downtown is horrible,” Hall said. “... And West Market (Street) near Resnick elementary school, the holes are right along where tires hit."
Both those major routes, along with Hawkins Avenue, are in the queue for Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) funding, Hall said. This year, instead, ODOT is completely replacing Tallmadge Avenue through North Hill and Howe Avenue in Chapel Hill, a project that will take circulate traffic in a one-way loop around the struggling nearby mall for the next two years.
ODOT picks up 80 percent of the cost. "Our job is to keep these roads (like Market and Exchange) drive-able until the state does the work,” Hall said.
Help from the state
But the state agency is having budget woes of its own.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is pushing for an 18-cent increase to Ohio’s gas tax to help fix Ohio’s roads and bridges, saying infrastructure revenue hasn’t kept up with inflation. Ohio lawmakers are countering with a lower increase.
Orange barrel blues
The greatest need
Aaron Renn of the The Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank, said his study of municipal needs shows that much of the grant money goes to big, flashy projects, not the residential street at the end of most residents' driveways.
In Akron, the biggest example is construction that has tied downtown in knots as the city rebuild the entire section of Main Street, largely with state and federal grants. The State Street bridge also is getting state funding, as well as the reconfiguration of Main Street near the ODOT Central Interchange project.
Sometimes drawing as much ire as orange barrels are new bike lanes and sidewalks that jut into the street like teeth, chewing up a driving lane to create on-street parking and a shorter, safer crossing for pedestrians. The city is using ODOT money to implement these "road diets" in front of a couple schools each year.
In downtown Akron, all the work has kept everyone from Uber drivers to paying customers circumventing the orange barrels and businesses in the heart of the city.
"I love what the city is doing downtown," said Liz Keener, who owns and operates The Eye Opener restaurant in Wallhaven. "I'm sure it's got to be difficult on the businesses down there, but in the long run I think it's going to be super."
Keener is awaiting a response from the city after popping a tire in a pothole this month. Her business has suffered when the city closed two of three entrances for road and sewer work. "The roadwork is just a thing in Akron. I don't know. Is it all over Ohio? Is it all over the world? I don't know, but it's the biggest issue I have."
Maxwell and Blakey also are still waiting to get a response on their damage claim from the pothole they encountered in Highland Square. Most claims are denied as long as the city didn't know about the pothole before the accident and filled it in a "timely" manner afterward.
“It was so deep, it was Narnia down there,” said Maxwell, who hasn't driven the same through Akron since the accident.
“You know, it’s sort of like you check your rearview mirrors every few seconds to see what’s happening around you," Maxwell said. Not anymore. “I’m always looking down checking for potholes.”