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WKSU Goes Underground With Akron's Big Dig

Construction is in full swing on the biggest piece of Akron’s $1.4 billion sewer project. A free tour allows people to see what’s happening beneath the city.

Twice a month, Heather Bolestridge with Akron Waterways Renewed welcomes people to one of the tours of the city’s sewer project. Whether you’re from Akron or not, this is an unusual opportunity to check out a major environmental investment the city is making.

Every week, crews working downtown blast a little more of the city’s underground, making headway on the Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel. And if you take one of the trolley tours, you might hear some of that blasting. For more than two hours, the trolley winds around sites from the Mustill Store north of downtown, all the way past Canal Park and even into Goodyear Heights to show progress on the tunnel, and other pieces of the government-mandated combined sewer overflow project.

“It’s pretty interesting how deep they’re going underneath and even the blasting. And it doesn’t seem like it’s a lot of impact.”

'Akron's kind of unique with our love of the rivers and the canal. And they just want to see how things are improving.'

That’s Kim Norley, a landscape architect with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. She took the tour to see how it will impact the Towpath Trail and the city, and she came away impressed.

“I like the community outreach. So I think them spending this time getting everybody to understand community outreach is really important.”

Going green
Norley says the tour gave her a chance to learn more about the project’s green initiatives, such as landscaping around overflow basins, and reducing nutrients at the wastewater treatment facility. That’s allowed Akron to save money by getting some zero-percent loans from the Ohio EPA.

Project Manager Pat Gsellman says nature has saved Akron money in another way: the city’s topography allows the sewer tunnel to use gravity, rather than building a multi-million-dollar pump station to move the flow along.

“People are very, very interested, obviously, in water quality and the river system. And Akron’s kind of unique with our love of the rivers and the canal. And they just want to see how things are improving. I think a lot of the older, retired engineers are definitely coming out of the wood work, because they’re just dying to see how things are happening.”

One of those retired engineers is Kenneth Kerata. He applauds the outreach efforts surrounding Akron’s sewer project.

“I was really impressed with all the up-front planning and the care and attention and getting people engaged in the project and their attention to all this detail. Instead of just coming in and saying, ‘hey, we’re building this thing – live with it.’ They really did a nice job in managing this whole thing [and] I’m very impressed.”

Saving money
Kerata believes efforts like the trolley tour also go a long way towards explaining the project to people who have seen spiraling sewer rates in the past several years. Heather Bolestridge, spokeswoman for Akron Waterways Renewed, leads most of the tours and says planners are always trying to keep costs down.

“We’re having our tunnel-boring machine manufactured at Robbins, which is in Solon. We’re getting some of the pieces to that tunnel-boring machine from Macedonia. And from Timken, we’re getting one of our bearings. So I think it’s important to note that we’re trying to not only have local companies working on the job, but also using local facilities to provide some of the things we’re using on the job.”

Meet Rosie, the tunnel-boring machine
Bolestridge expects the tunnel-boring machine will be moved by a convoy of trucks sometime in July. Project Manager Pat Gsellman is also usually on the tours, and says the massive piece of equipment will be easily visible from North Street once it starts boring its way underground.

“It grinds and chews away the rock as it goes through. And you think of it as a cylinder with a head on it that has a lot of things that will cut into the rock, then kind of a train in the back end of it. As the machine is cutting into the rock, you’ve got a conveyor system that takes all of the material that it’s cutting -- comes out a big conveyor belt that will go the whole length of the tunnel and be disposed of at the end of the tunnel.”

Gsellman encourages anyone interested in gauging progress to check out their webcams, detour maps and, of course, to sign up for a trolley tour.

“I didn’t know how deep the holes really went, and you can actually see them from the road.”

Rachel Hace from Hinckley learned about the trolley tour through her job at a company that supplies construction trailers.

“I think it’s terrific that they’re involving the community, the Akron residents, because this is what they’re paying for as far as their taxes – so they can see what it’s all about. I think it’s pretty neat.”