When traffic engineers peered into their crystal ball in 2015 to study Interstate 95 interchanges in Palm Beach County, they saw a major need.
Not just a need to add more lanes to handle ever-growing traffic on the major north-south highway.
They saw 17 interchanges between Linton Boulevard and Northlake where congestion is expected to get so bad that traffic would spill over onto the main highway and cross traffic would be forced to wait longer and longer to let vehicles enter and exit the highway.
The $1.7 million study by consulting engineers Kimley-Horn put into motion a plan that in the next 10 years could cost $450 million at 15 of the 17 interchanges.
Three more projects, all north of the study boundary at Northlake, are planned as well, promising lane improvements at PGA Boulevard and Indiantown Road and a new $108 million highway interchange at Central Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens.
But relief still could be a long way off. While some projects have money set aside for land buys or engineering in the next few years, few have assurances of construction money, the point at which the public will start to see barricades going up.
Most of the interchange projects that do show up in the five-year plan to be approved in June by local officials, such as Northlake Boulevard in north county, are gridlocked in a logjam of projects, likely to be stalled for years.
That’s because the state has too many projects and not enough money.
Every year, some projects get kicked to the rear. Northlake was scheduled to get construction money in fiscal year 2022 (July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022) before it was pushed back to 2024, then 2025 and finally, 2026.
That’s where five other interchange projects await, all vying for cash from the same limited pot of money.
For major roads such as I-95, FDOT also publishes a second five-year plan, but officials warn that those dates are even more fluid than the ones in the plan covering the first five years.
The lists are refined every year, based on predicted revenues from an ever-changing catalog of federal programs, changes in design or decisions to make a project cheaper or more expensive, said Nick Uhren, whose Palm Beach County Transportation Planning Agency acts as a liaison between state transportation planners and local elected officials.
“They (FDOT officials) match up funding dollars with each program and hope that the Sudoku puzzle fills everything in,” Uhren said. “If cost goes up, they have to delay. … Sometimes projects get accelerated. … We’ve got four or five years to figure out if there are better ways.”
As a result, local politicians don’t have a whole lot of say.
While Jupiter has agreed to contribute nearly $4 million toward a $10.5 million project at Interstate 95 and Indiantown Road, that didn’t help the town avoid a one-year delay imposed by FDOT.
In January, town Councilman Jim Kuretski got the TPA to formally ask FDOT to keep construction money in the plan for 2023 rather than push it back to 2024.
The board’s vote to keep the project in 2023, Kuretski said in an interview, is “supposed to carry some weight.”
But it didn’t.
“That was my one shot to get a change considered. If you wait until June (when the board must approve the plan), you don’t have any chance,” he said.
No money for toll lanes
The interchange improvements compete with other I-95 projects, including adding a new lane on the interstate in each direction south of Linton Boulevard. That would allow for toll lanes on the freeway to continue from Miami-Dade and Broward counties into south Palm Beach County.
No money is in the state’s five-year plan to expand or add I-95 toll lanes from Linton north to Indiantown Road, although a future needs plan lists the expansion as a $2.6 billion task.
Instead highway spending in Palm Beach County during the 2020s is concentrated on upgrading the interchanges, the key choke point where traffic stops on major east-west roads to let cars get on and off the highway.
If nothing is done, the I-95 master plan found, all 17 interchanges would fail to flow smoothly by 2040. The only interchange between Linton and Northlake that the consultants didn’t examine is the direct flyover to Palm Beach International Airport between Belvedere Road and Southern Boulevard.
Smaller jobs, such as adding or extending turn lanes, have been completed at Blue Heron, 10th Avenue North and Lantana, Woolbright and Hypoluxo roads.
Work is also underway at Glades Road south of Linton, part of a project to add toll lanes to the freeway. And an $81 million south county interchange with a spaghetti bowl of flyover ramps between Glades and Yamato roads opened in 2017 at Spanish River Boulevard in Boca Raton.
11 projects lined up
FDOT records show construction would begin on five major interchange projects over the next four years, with two in fiscal year 2023, two the next year and one the following year.
PGA and Indiantown are not among the 17 interchanges studied by Kimley-Horn, since they are north of Northlake Boulevard.
In the final year of the five-year plan, money is supposed to be delivered to begin construction on six more projects worth an estimated $230 million.
As Uhren explained, that is unlikely to happen.
With federal gas tax revenues dropping because of a decline in travel during the coronavirus pandemic and a rise in fuel-efficient vehicles, the most likely scenario is that no more than three of those projects would have enough money to start in 2026.
Barring a major push for more road money from Congress, the rest would get pushed further down the road.
The 21 local elected officials who sit on the county’s Transportation Planning Agency board can proclaim priorities but final decisions are made by FDOT officials, weighing projects and special highway revenues both statewide and in District 4, which spans Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties.
So which job goes first depends on revenues, project cost and readiness as much as on need determined by locals.
The draft five-year plan, to be approved by the TPA in June, has construction money for the six interchange projects only in the fifth year of the plan, 2026, making it easy for them to be pushed back even further.
Tentatively scheduled for 2027 are Woolbright Road and Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard.
Lantana Road would wait until 2029 and no construction money appears until 2030 for 10th Avenue North in Lake Worth Beach.
Also with no construction money is Southern Boulevard, but FDOT plans to spend $17 million on planning and land buys to prepare for construction next decade.
While Blue Heron and Okeechobee are not even tentatively set for construction, FDOT officials pointed out that some money has been spent on both already.
Blue Heron got a $1.2 million facelift in 2017, with the addition of left-turn lanes at the off ramps and an extended left-turn lane at Garden Road.
Okeechobee got a $1 million injection for an eastbound right turn lane.
Thanks for reading. For more details on what’s planned at PGA Boulevard and Indiantown Road, check out “From 3 lanes to 1 lane to I-95 lanes: FDOT aims to uncork PGA flyover logjam.”
And for an update on Northlake Boulevard, see “Running on empty: No fix in sight for Northlake at I-95.”
GIF illustration by Patty McNally/Table 13 derived from “Interstate 95 Interchange Master Plan Palm Beach County” by Kimley-Horn, 2015.
Copyright © 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.