Running on empty: No fix in sight for Northlake at I-95

Traffic will get worse before it gets better.

What will it take to get the Northlake Boulevard interchange at Interstate 95 rebuilt?

It’s been under study since 2015 and first scheduled for construction in 2021. 

But not anymore.

Now it’s set for 2025. And there’s no guarantee that will happen.

Since a 2015 state study recommended rebuilding all 17 interchanges in Palm Beach County, Northlake appeared to be on a fast track. By 2017, planners had rejected expensive proposals for flyovers and new ramps before settling on a $57 million, three-year rebuild.

They proposed adding a third left- and right-turn lane on both exit ramps and adding lanes to straighten out the mess that is Northlake under I-95. That eastbound left turn lane and stoplight at Roan Lane? Gone.

But not anytime soon. 

While money for planning moved forward, money for construction kept getting pushed back.

The decision is made by the state, which juggles federal highway money for projects statewide as well as within District 4, where Palm Beach County competes with Broward, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties.

Federal gas tax revenues are expected to peak soon: ‘When you project that out, we’re seeing, in two years, we stop growing. … So it’s a huge issue.’

Gerry O’Reilly, Florida Department of Transportation District 4 secretary

Still, a review of proposed interchange projects in the county shows that none has been pushed back as far as Northlake.

Initially set for construction in the second half of 2021, the project got punted to late 2023. Then late 2024.

Now, the earliest construction would start is the second half of 2025 under the proposed five-year road plan for Palm Beach County, which passed a preliminary review in January. It will be submitted for final review in June to the 21 elected officials sitting on the county’s Transportation Planning Agency board.

Traffic lines up at the southbound Interstate 95 exit ramp at Northlake Boulevard on Feb. 24, 2021. A $56 million plan calls for adding triple turn lanes but work is not slated to start anytime soon. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

FDOT running on empty

But, with declining revenues, who’s to say it will happen even then?

With the coronavirus pandemic and the shift to fuel-efficient and electric vehicles, collections from the federal gas tax that pay for road projects are not growing like they used to. 

In fact, the situation is beginning to look dire to the officials overseeing road work. 

Federal gas tax revenues are expected to peak in the next two or three years before declining because of a shift in driving habits and fuel efficiency, the Florida Department of Transportation’s District 4 secretary, Gerry O’Reilly, told the TPA board in January.

That spells an end to a time in which Florida’s continuous growth meant more gas consumption, which meant more money for road work, O’Reilly told the board, which includes five county commissioners, 15 elected city officials and one Port of Palm Beach commissioner. 

Hear Gerry O’Reilly’s comments at the 1:41:00 mark

“When you project that out, we’re seeing, in two years, we stop growing. … So it’s a huge issue,” O’Reilly said during a rare visit to the monthly gathering. 

The federal gas tax, unlike the state gas tax, is not linked to inflation. It has been 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. The result is that the last federal transportation bill covered just three years, not the normal six, O’Reilly said “because it couldn’t be funded.”

With the pandemic, major projects like Northlake have been pushed back simply because there’s not enough money. 

That means a pileup of projects all supposedly set to go in the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2025, and all competing for the same pool of scarce dollars against Northlake Boulevard.

More lanes for more cars

Northlake, the most commercial artery in north county, is lined with shopping centers. Within a half-mile of the intersection, shoppers can go to Home Depot, Publix, two car dealers and an array of fast-food joints.

Interstate 95 crosses over the westbound lanes of Northlake Boulevard on Feb. 24, 2021. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

State road planners held workshops and met with local officials before deciding in 2017 to reject a $132 million option for flyover ramps and a $90 million option to reconfigure the “diamond”-style interchange into a “diverging diamond,” which reduces the number of left turns.

Instead, traffic patterns would remain the same. The idea is to funnel more cars into more lanes.

The long-range planning that showed a need to rebuild Northlake covered such a wide period that even construction during the 2020s would fall within the planning horizon, which went through 2040. 

Studies at the time showed I-95 traffic at Northlake was expected to go from 166,000 vehicles a day in 2015 to 204,000 a day in 2040. The southbound exit ramp would handle 19,000 vehicles a day, up from 12,000.

Westbound traffic on Northlake Boulevard waits at Interstate 95. A new westbound lane is part of a $56 million plan to rebuild the interchange. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Backups forcing motorists to wait for more than one cycle of the stoplight were evident to FDOT consulting engineers studying the intersection in 2014.

If no changes are made by 2040, however, the planners said the interchange would be so utterly congested state engineers would give it a failing grade. That means waiting through multiple cycles before turning.

Triple turn lanes on the ramps

Here’s the plan

  • Add triple left-turn and triple right-turn lanes from the I-95 northbound and southbound off-ramps, which have double turn lanes now.
  • Extend northbound and southbound I-95 off-ramp lanes.
  • Add eastbound and westbound lanes under Northlake running from one side of the highway to the other. 
  • Add dual left turn lanes from southbound Keating Drive just west of the highway to eastbound Northlake.
  • Add dual left turn lanes from westbound Northlake to the Gardens Towne Square shopping center, which features Publix and Duffy’s Sports Grill. 
  • Close the eastbound left turn median opening and eliminate the stoplight at Roan Lane, the sole entrance to a neighborhood of single-family homes. Eastbound traffic would make a U-turn at the next signal, Sunrise Drive, and circle back on westbound Northlake. 
  • Add sidewalks and bicycle lanes on Northlake.

See a map of the Northlake and Interstate 95 interchange.

Westbound traffic backs up on Northlake Boulevard west of Interstate 95. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Thank you for reading. Up next: Where does Northlake rank among more than a dozen interchange projects planned for Interstate 95 in Palm Beach County?

Liked this story? Joel welcomes your comments and news tips at Joel@OnGardens.org.

Copyright © 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

Author: Joel Engelhardt

Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years at The Palm Beach Post. As a reporter, he covered countywide growth, the 2000 election and the birth of Cityplace in West Palm Beach. As an editor, he oversaw probes into the opioid scourge, private prisons, police-involved shootings and more. For seven years, he worked on the paper’s editorial board. Joel left The Post in December 2020. He and his wife, Donna, have lived together in Palm Beach Gardens since 1992.

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