Senator tours downtown

Portman helped area land BUILD Grant for upgrades

YOUNGSTOWN — U.S. Sen. Rob Portman met with Youngstown leaders Friday to discuss plans to improve Youngstown’s business district.

Youngstown recently received a $10.8 million BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Developments) Grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The BUILD grant is a seven-year grant, but plans are to complete the entire project in half that time, about three years. The improvements will affect Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue, Rayen Avenue, Commerce Street, Federal Street, Phelps Street and Front Street.

Portman, R-Ohio, has been a driving force behind Youngstown receiving the grant, but he credits everyone involved.

“I’ve seen a lot of the plans on paper but until you come here and actually get a chance to ride the route and look at some of the changes that are coming, you can’t fully appreciate it. I’m really excited to see it,” Portman said during a downtown tour Friday. “This grant application is a success. This is a true example of collaboration.”

The project’s main goal is to enhance mobility, improve safety and integrate modern technology in downtown Youngstown.

“We intend on creating what we call a ‘complete street,’ that means underground utilities, pedestrian lighting, wider sidewalks, maybe narrower roads, and we’ll look at parking. We chose to do Federal Street because it’s the main street in the city and goes past the majority of our anchor institutions,” said Michael Hripko, Associate Vice President External Affairs, Government Relations and Economic Development at Youngstown State University.

YSU students are a main concern for the area. As the university expands toward Belmont Avenue, that means more and more students have to cross over the six lanes on Fifth Avenue. The plan is to narrow the road to one lane in both directions with a turning lane in the middle. Better sidewalks also will be added to help get students to and from the university safely.

Part of the improvements include adding autonomous bus routes. Portman previewed the WRTA bus route that will take passengers from the Chill Can Beverage and Technology Complex on Oak Street less than a mile from campus, through downtown and up toward Mercy Health’s campus.

Fortunately, the government shutdown will not affect this project as provisions were set aside to aid the grant.

“We’ll solve the government shutdown soon. We’ve won the award, we’ll get the funding, the question is how quickly,” said Portman.

YSU President Jim Tressel said he is confident these improvements are a great investment as the installation of the autonomous bus route also has the potential to result in a $250 million economic advancement.

“When you bring people to an attractive place, there’s a chance that they’ll keep coming back. Our belief is now that the infrastructure is built, we’ll continue to grow,” he said.