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Roads and rumbling stomachs: Tuscaloosa faces growing pains

Ben Jackson

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Tuscaloosa is growing, quickly. Last week I visited the new Fresh Market, one of the crowning jewels of Legacy Park, a $55 million project at the intersection of McFarland and 13th street. Across the street stand The Lofts at City Center, 1,226 additional beds of off-campus student housing. Obviously, big things are happening.

But as I sit still in McFarland traffic where not even a blaring ambulance can get by, I have to ask myself: Is Tuscaloosa ready for this much growth?

I think the answer is no, and the reason why involves more than just inconvenient parking at Midtown Village. At the risk of sounding alarmist, Tuscaloosa is in the midst of an infrastructure crisis.

The Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) has listed Tuscaloosa as a top growing city for 2015, with the area expected to grow 3.8% this year alone. With few exceptions, this doesn’t include the burgeoning UA student population, which is rapidly approaching 40,000.

More people means more cars, and more cars equate to more traffic. This is bad news for the two major thoroughfares of T-town – 15th Street and McFarland, where peak traffic hours mean slower trips and higher rates of collision than almost anywhere else Tuscaloosa. These two roads constitute most of the city’s traffic flow, meaning a major blockage could cause everything from delivery delays to medical emergencies when ambulances get caught in the fray.

Meanwhile, the city’s $6 million project to improve McFarland’s traffic flow is behind schedule and hardly meets Tuscaloosa’s needs. With the addition of Legacy Park and its inevitable traffic flow, traffic will likely be worse than before, even with the added improvements.

Legacy Park itself offers a window in the second part of the infrastructure conundrum: food supply. Within the “box” (the immediate university area as defined by the river, I-359, 15th and McFarland), the only grocery option has been the campus Publix – known for its high prices and limited selection of fresh foods.

The box’s periphery isn’t much better, including Target, which is only accessible to most by car and also has a surprising lack of produce. World Market and Fresh Market, while high in quality, price themselves out for day-to-day shopping. All of these factors are concerning for most middle-income students, but for lower income students, this scarcity could be extremely dangerous.

I hesitate to label the Tuscaloosa area an urban food desert, but the issue regarding accessible food supplies is certainly one of major concern. Should Tuscaloosa continue to grow at this pace, the consequences could be severe.

So, if Tuscaloosa is at capacity, what is to be done? Should we all sell our cars and switch to bikes? Should we have Mom and Dad start FedExing us food? While I’m a big fan of option number two, don’t do anything too drastic yet—there are steps that can be taken avert what may lie ahead.

For starters, the University and the city of Tuscaloosa should work together in assessing the current state of affairs regarding transportation and food. The problem will not solve itself—it will take a coordinated effort to broaden roadways, improve traffic conditions and incentivize more grocery stores in locations like 15th Street.

Secondly, the University should step up into its role of answering the question, “Growth, but to what end?” Growth is good, I agree, but not at the expense of quality of life. We need to critically assess the reason we are trying to grow, and if we as a campus community are ready.

Furthermore, when the University reaches its growth goal, it can and should incentivize more students to live on campus, following the examples of other urban schools like Vanderbilt. This eases traffic patterns, makes food distribution more accessible and has been shown to have an array of academic benefits, as well.

Once we begin addressing some of these obstacles, I think Tuscaloosa can continue to grow into the exciting, vibrant city it seeks to become. Until then, the threat remains that failure to address these concerns will result in bigger problems down the road. And then Tuscaloosa, which has been moving so fast, will find itself stuck in traffic.

Ben Jackson is a sophomore majoring in accounting and finance. His column runs biweekly on Wednesdays.

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Roads and rumbling stomachs: Tuscaloosa faces growing pains