The daily traffic snarl on PGA Boulevard at Interstate 95 took a significant step toward easing Thursday with the act of a local transportation planning agency.
State plans to improve traffic flow on the perpetually stalled southbound I-95 entrance ramp moved up two years with an infusion of $7.2 million from the American Rescue Plan approved by Congress in March.
With that money, the Florida Department of Transportation offered to move construction from 2023-24 to 2021-22, which means work would get underway next year.
The Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency board, at a meeting Thursday in which they selected an interim director and hired a search firm to find a permanent replacement for the departing Nick Uhren, unanimously embraced FDOT’s suggestion.
The $8.5 million project was the only one in the state’s five-year road program for Palm Beach County to be expedited.
The Florida Legislature set aside $1.4 billion statewide from the American Rescue Plan, with the district covering Palm Beach and Broward counties as well as the Treasure Coast getting $13.4 million, an FDOT spokeswoman said Friday. The district assigned the money to priority roadway and safety projects, with about half going to the PGA Boulevard project.
The fix proposed by FDOT doesn’t require rebuilding the southbound ramp, where traffic from westbound PGA merges with traffic from Alternate A1A, creating a daily quagmire that backs up cars all the way to the Gardens Mall.
Instead, it aims to reduce the bottleneck by speeding up the merger once cars reach the highway.
It gives those drivers their own, dedicated merge lane, meaning they won’t have to merge into the main I-95 flow of traffic as quickly as they do now.
The merger is among the most dangerous in Palm Beach County, Palm Beach Gardens Vice Mayor and TPA board member Chelsea Reed said before the vote.
While she welcomed the proposed fix, she asked that planners also begin searching for a more comprehensive solution, such as widening the ramp to accommodate more cars.
She acknowledged that could take years.
Interim TPA director: Valerie Neilson
While the board’s action on the PGA merger took minutes, board members spent hours wrestling with the decision to hire former Deputy Director Valerie Neilson as interim director.
Defeating proposals to make Neilson permanent or to give her a few months in the job before launching a search, the board agreed to hire Slavin Management Consultants for $24,100, to begin a national search.
County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay led the charge to hand Neilson the job outright.
“This is not the time to waste taxpayers dollars to go hire a consultant to do a search when we have the perfect applicant right here before us,” McKinlay said.
Neilson worked for the agency for nearly seven years before departing this summer to return to her home town of Anchorage, Alaska, for a planning job with the city. But the job changed with the election of a new mayor and she and her husband rapidly returned to Florida.
She became a deputy director with the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency in October, a position she will leave for the $175,000-a-year job as TPA interim director.
Uhren, the executive director for eight years, announced in November that he would leave the job but has not publicly explained his decision. The board voted to remove him from office on Dec. 27, with Neilson starting the next day. He will continue to collect payment under his contract through Jan. 28 and Neilson will be eligible for the permanent job.
While several members argued for making Neilson’s hire permanent, a majority of the 21-member board said they didn’t feel comfortable making such an important decision without more review.
The proposal to hire Neilson for the permanent job did not come from the board’s five-member executive committee, which met Dec. 6 and recommended Neilson for the interim role and the hiring of the search firm. It came during the meeting from a motion by McKinlay, who is not a member of the executive committee.
Several members objected.
“I just think we need to slow down and do what we said we were going to do,” Riviera Beach Councilwoman and board member Shirley Lanier said. “Perceptions are everything.”
The board also embraced a written request from County Commissioner Maria Marino, who did not attend the meeting, to consider a project to add streetlights to a dark section of Central Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens, where 14-year-old Ryan Rogers was murdered in November.
This story was updated after publication with information provided by the Florida Department of Transportation.
© 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.
For more on plans for I-95 throughout Palm Beach County, check out “The intersection of bad to worse: I-95 fixes stuck in the slow lane.”
For the latest on Northlake Boulevard see “Running on empty: No fix in sight for Northlake at I-95.”