The Tarleton effect: Does influx of students slow downtown traffic?

JESSIE HORTON jessie.horton@empiretribune.com

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series that will examine the effects Tarleton State University and its students have on the Stephenville community. As the university continues to grow and thrive, the community does as well. But as with any growing community, while there are numerous benefits, there are also drawbacks to a larger population.

Tarleton officials have announced enrollment for the university has topped 10,000 students with more than half located at the Stephenville campus. Of the record 10,281 students, 7,676 of them are attending classes in Stephenville. Tarleton’s freshman class, with 2,233 students, is also the largest in history. The university’s freshmen class has grown 24 percent the past three years, according to university officials.

“Tarleton State University has been serving the citizens of Texas since 1899 and we are proud to continue that tradition with a student body that is the largest, most diverse and best prepared in our history,” said President F. Dominic Dottavio in a press release earlier this week. “Record numbers of students are discovering that Tarleton is a great value because it is one of the lowest cost, highest quality and most student-focused universities in Texas."

According to the 2010 census, the population of Stephenville is 17,123 with a strong, diversified economic base. The Stephenville Chamber of Commerce's website also cited the university as having "a strong influence on the economy of the area," adding that the school employs a full-time faculty and staff of 1,127 – the largest employer in the city by more than 500.

These numbers mean that when Tarleton is in session, the population of Stephenville nearly doubles in size. Not every student is from elsewhere and moves in only for fall and spring semesters, but even with the local students who attend the school, the town undergoes big changes at the beginning of each school year.

With school now back in full swing, many residents have gone on our Facebook page and spoken out in other ways about the effect Tarleton students have on traffic in and around town. But Police Chief Patrick Bridges said traffic problems residents face are not just because of the influx of students.

"You see these issues with any city or town that sees growth," Bridges said. "The more people you have in vehicles, the more congestion there is going to be on the streets and at intersections."

There are a number of intersections or roadways that become nearly impassable or, at the very least, extremely difficult to navigate before classes begin and when they let out. Examples include the intersection of Alexander, Ollie and Washington streets where an accident had traffic diverted for more than an hour during lunch two weeks ago, or the four-way traffic light at the intersection of Harbin and Washington streets where daily traffic becomes congested.

Another example is the four-way stop signs at the intersection of Harbin and W. Frey Streets where, at lunch and in the afternoons, traffic lines up for almost two blocks. A mother of a student at Chamberlin Elementary said at its worst, traffic has caused it to take 30 minutes to go from picking up her student to getting through the intersection. However, according to records obtained from the police station, that specific incident was when an accident blocked lanes of traffic at the intersection.

This brings the traffic problems full circle. According to Bridges, the main issues with traffic are not specific to the college students, but rather the impatience of drivers at intersections and stop signs and the fact that drivers do not always give their full attention to the road when behind the wheel.

"It isn't just here, with the students, but anywhere the population is growing more rapidly than the roadways. And the biggest problem isn't the lack of a light or signs at intersections, it's driver impatience and not paying attention. You could put a light or a stop sign at every intersection in town and there would still be accidents," Bridges said. "Until everyone only focuses on driving and slows down there will be accidents at intersections. It could be anything, from texting or talking on cell phones to messing with the radio to chatting with passengers in the vehicles with them; people who are distracted and impatient will have wrecks."

As recently as Friday morning, an accident involving two vehicles at the intersection of Frey and Harbin had traffic on Harbin backed up to the Washington Street intersection. While it was not known as of press time the cause of the accident, with a four-way stop at the intersection, impatience or inattention would be a reasonable assumption.

Tarleton State, Stephenville and Erath County continue to grow. As the population climbs, so will the number of people on the roadways. Growth will continue to be a good thing, no matter what the reason, but with that growth comes growing pains. City officials ask that residents who take to the streets remember to give their full attention to driving and remain patient when in congestion.