Any old farmer worth his salt will tell you that you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. So local motorists should probably applaud the work of TDOT engineers that appears to have Oneida’s Alberta Street on the cusp of a long-awaited improvement project. After all, any modifications to the highway, no matter how small, are likely to help improve the overall traffic flow.

But it’s unfortunate that the improvements planned by the state will not do more to address the bottleneck of traffic through the middle of town.

For nearly 20 years, Oneida has awaited a bypass. Plans were developed, maps were drawn, public hearings were held. As proposed, the bypass would have rerouted U.S. Hwy. 27 through the farmland to the west of town, opening up that area to economic expansion and solving the traffic congestion issue through the center of town.

That all changed three years ago, when TDOT took the bypass option off the table once and for all and chose instead to concentrate on improvements to Alberta Street’s existing route. Local officials have known since that point that a widening of the highway from two lanes to four was too much to ask for along that five-mile stretch; the expense of right-of-way acquisition on the north end and the location of the Norfolk-Southern Railroad on the south end made it too much to ask for.

But the problems that first prompted talks of a bypass more than two decades ago have only gotten worse in the years that have passed. Alberta Street becomes a traffic nightmare on weekday afternoons, as schools dismiss for the day. The congestion is exacerbated on the first weekend of each month, which brings increased traffic flow into the town’s retail district.

The numbers speak for themselves. TDOT’s traffic counts have found that Alberta Street is over capacity. Traffic studies have found that there are more than 12,300 vehicles per day traveling Alberta Street between Depot Street and 2nd Avenue, the two intersections that will be addressed in the upcoming project. But further north, at Oak Grove, the daily traffic count swells to more than 14,500 vehicles. And the narrowing of southbound traffic from four lanes to two near that intersection creates frustrations for drivers.

The numbers from those traffic counts made Alberta Street a top-priority project for TDOT several years ago. You’d be hard-pressed to find too many Tennessee towns of comparable size with a state highway that is limited to one lane of traffic in either direction through the heart of town.

While TDOT’s planned improvement project will have beneficial results for the traffic flow in the downtown area, it will do nothing to improve the bottleneck on the north end, where southbound motorists are driving into the Oak Grove intersection from the “bottom of the Four Lane.” The resulting congestion is Alberta Street’s most pressing issue. Northbound traffic, too, suffers, with backups occurring from Oak Grove south to 3rd Avenue during the peak of the afternoon traffic flow.

Three years ago, when TDOT scrapped the bypass plans for Oneida, prohibitive cost was cited as the issue. But that was before the Tennessee General Assembly approved a measure that increases the state’s tax on gasoline and diesel. The resulting impact to the state’s transportation budget amounts to nearly $280 million annually. There are major transportation needs in each of Tennessee’s 95 counties, meaning that money won’t stretch as far as it might first appear. But with that much new money flowing in, it seems like a few extra million to fix a transportation problem as pressing as Oneida’s shouldn’t be too much to ask.

We can only hope that TDOT’s regional planners won’t wait too long to come back to the drawing board with additional improvements for Alberta Street that will address the bigger problem of rush-hour traffic headaches. Because one thing is for sure: while the changes to “the corner” and the intersection of Alberta and 2nd are welcomed improvements that will benefit motorists, the rush-hour nightmare isn’t going anywhere.

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