The area around Interstate 20's Exit 188 was once a sleepy area dotted mainly by farms and homes. In recent years, however, the development of hotels and restaurants north of the interstate and the Oxford Exchange and Oxford Commons retail centers to south have brought more and more traffic.
Cars and trucks heading to and from the shopping centers mix with trucks and travelers entering and exiting I-20, leading to long waits at some of the lights.
“Even I get frustrated out there,” said Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge.
One major problem, Partridge said, is that traffic lights along Leon Smith Parkway are synchronized according to a traffic study completed in 2006.
“It’s still set up that way,” said Partridge. “But there’s been a huge amount of growth in that area, and traffic has really picked up, so we’re going to have to revise that plan.”
That 2006 study did take growth into consideration, but “we’ve exceed those expectations,” said Council President Steven Waits.
And those long lines of cars along the parkway only stand to lengthen once a planned recreational complex is completed, and development continues at the Oxford Commons retail complex, Waits said.
“It’s a great problem to have,” Waits said, but he added it’s a problem city officials are working to address.
Partridge said a new traffic study — to be completed within the next two weeks — will determine the current traffic volume, and traffic patterns throughout the shopping area.
“Once we figure out what type of traffic flow we have out there, we’ll be able to retime those lights so we can get some smoother flowing traffic and ease the congestion in the intersections,” Partridge said.
Synchronizing traffic lights will be the quickest fix, Waits said, but a long-term plan will use data in the new study to determine if additional lanes are needed, or if moving lane stripes would ease traffic.
“We’ve got to get a long-term plan, and start to work before it becomes an issue,” Waits said.
Unlike Jacksonville and Anniston, Oxford does not employ a city planner, whose job it would be to plan for such things as road construction and larger-picture land use.
Attempts Thursday to reach Mayor Leon Smith for comment were unsuccessful, but Waits said a planner may not be what Oxford needs most.
“My greatest interest would be for a city engineer, rather than a city planner,” Waits said.
An engineer would have a better understanding of what the city needs and be able to manage projects through to the end, Waits said.
Brian Johnson, assistant professor of geography at Auburn University at Montgomery, said it’s not uncommon for a city the size of Oxford, even with the rapid growth, to be without a city planner.
“A city engineer is in charge of the real nuts-and-bolts stuff,” Johnson said, from the width of roads, to sidewalk specifications and what type of concrete to use.
Oxford doesn’t have a city planner, but it does have a planning board made up of local business leaders, the city project manager, the mayor and a council liaison. That board works to fill the role of a city planner, said Councilwoman Charlotte Hubbard.
Hubbard, council liaison on the board, said the group meets each month to talk about how to help the city address problems like traffic congestion on the parkway. They’ve discussed adding exits off of Interstate 20 onto the parkway, Hubbard said.
“I think it would make a big difference once they get the lights synchronized,” Hubbard said.
Oxford’s traffic problems aren’t uncommon, Johnson said, “especially when you have automobile-oriented, suburban-style retail development.”
An updated traffic study is a good idea, Johnson said, and the data can be used to apply for grants to widen roads and add lanes.
But Johnson warned against additional lanes as a long-term solution to Oxford’s traffic woes, and said the best way to cut down on traffic is to get more people walking and biking to shopping areas.
More lanes usually just mean more cars, he said.
“It’s kind of like trying to put out a fire with gasoline,” Johnson said.
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.