Akron’s new Freedom Trail is taking an unexpected and expensive detour under East Market Street.
The bike and hike trail that starts in Kent and passes through Tallmadge was designed to run alongside a set of CSX railroad tracks as it crossed into downtown Akron then south to connect with the Towpath Trail. While the railroad company owns the tracks, Summit Metro Parks charted a course through adjacent strips of land owned by Metro RTA.
The public transit authority had given the park district free rein to lay asphalt as the project curved south toward state state Route 59. Up ahead, between Market and Mill streets, RTA allowed the park district to relocate utility lines in preparation.
But as a contractor readied to press forward last year, CSX informed Metro Parks that it, not the public bus line, owned the land. And following national guidelines from railroad associations, CSX never sells or allows its property to be used for recreation near train travel.
“The plan for this trail was presented to CSX for review based upon incorrect property ownership information,” the company said in a prepared statement to the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com. “This type of shared, recreational use of an active railroad corridor is not possible due to public safety concerns.”
“Safety is our top priority,” CSX continued. “We remind the public that any activity on or near rail tracks is extremely dangerous.”
Phases 1 and 2 of the Freedom Trail have brought the 7.6 mile project to Arlington Street. There’s partial completion of both Phase 3 from Eastwood Avenue to Mill Street and Phase 4 on down to the Towpath Trail behind the Spaghetti Warehouse.
A little more than a mile of the trail remains. Of the $3.9 million spent since 2009, $3 million has come from grants.
But engineers now say a detour around the 900 feet of CSX property in Phase 3, which was budgeted at $1.365 million to wrap up last year, could delay the entire project and increase the bottom line.
Nick Moskos, chief of planning and development for the county park system, said he and his staff have made the trail a priority project, racking their brains to come up with a viable alternative.
“We’re leaving no rock unturned,” he said Thursday, standing near the tracks looking at the East Market Street bridge and the CSX property beyond it. “We are really working hard to come up with a solution, and we are as frustrated as anyone.”
The bed of the train tracks sits in a ditch as wide as a football field with ledges on either side. All along it are tents and trash left by homeless people, many of them routinely ordered by the city to move.
Under the Market Street bridge is a particularly hot spot for homeless activity near the Haven of Rest at the top of the west bank. On Saturday, a train conductor spotted a deceased homeless man near the tracks east of the state Route 8 bridge.
Metro Parks is aware of the danger. The agency plans to run a 12-foot chain-link fence between the Freedom Trail and sections closest to the railroad. That didn't satisfy CSX. Nor did an offer to put the 900 feet of trail on the railroad company's property in a concrete tunnel.
So, Moskos surveyed the topography to consider two options.
He first thought of a bridge up and over Market Street, landing the Freedom Trail safely on the south side of the busy road. The University of Akron and city could provide room and pavement for the bike path to reconnect with the originally planned route on the south side of the Mill Street bridge at a trail head beneath a giant mural.
But he’d have to build the bridge 20 feet high to get out of the train-track bed then up another 20 feet to get over Market Street. A 40-foot incline is impractical, he said.
Next, he said he asked CSX if he could just clip its property as he drew the trail under the Market Street bridge then quickly up the left side of the gully to College Street. But CSX would not give even a couple of feet, Moskos said.
So, he’s submitting a “request for qualifications” Tuesday to identify contractors willing and able to bore a tunnel under East Market Street to safely reach College Street and continue south.
Sensitive to the heavy road construction clogging downtown, Moskos said the tunnel work must be performed while maintaining traffic above. “We do not want to disrupt traffic on East Market,” he said.
This isn’t the first time the Freedom Trail has been stopped in its tracks.
The Beacon Journal reported in 2014 that the initial plan was to connect to the Towpath Trail near Akron’s Northside Station. But a steep slope in that direction would have thrown the path out of federal compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
So, stumped by topography and densely developed urban terrain, Moskos turned the trail’s trajectory south again to give bicyclists and runners a view of the city seen each day by train conductors and homeless people.
Reach Doug Livingston at email@example.com or 330-996-3792.