The state had $80 million on hand to begin construction next year of State Road 7 from Okeechobee to Northlake boulevards.
But on Thursday, state officials will slam the brakes on the controversial project by formally asking local officials to sign off on a shocking twist: Delay it at least five years.
While cost increases contributed to the state’s action, a legal challenge filed by West Palm Beach to block the project remains the largest hurdle.
West Palm Beach objects to a four-lane road between the Ibis Golf and Country Club, which the city annexed as vacant land in the 1980s, and the city’s pristine drinking water catch basin, the Grassy Waters Preserve. The city says the road will harm the wetlands and should go west of Ibis, an option the state weighed and rejected decades ago.
Residents of The Acreage, and county engineers, have counted on the project for decades to provide an alternative to Royal Palm Beach Boulevard for homeowners in the bedroom community of 17,000 one-acre lots. That’s important as a single crash on one of the two main roads — Northlake and Okeechobee — serving the community can create hourlong bottlenecks.
“I’m irritated beyond words to see this happening,” said Richard Vassalotti, an Acreage resident who serves on a citizens review board that discussed the proposal Dec. 7. “What is the exact reason? Because this is absolutely insane.”
Litigation key to delay
FDOT can’t build the project next year because the first of West Palm Beach’s two legal challenges of the project’s environmental permits is not scheduled for trial until October 2023.
“When it gets out of litigation, which is undetermined, the funding doesn’t line up to move the project forward as scheduled and so we have to push the project out,” said Jason Price, lead planner with the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency in response to Vassalotti.
Despite that, he assured Vassalotti that the project that has been a county priority for years is not going to be permanently detoured.
“We’re keeping this project alive. It’s still a TPA priority,” he said. “We’re dedicated to seeing it built.” The project has been the county’s top priority for state money since 2004.
Delayed will be two segments of the same road. The first segment calls for widening the existing SR7 to four lanes from Okeechobee Boulevard to 60th Street, a route into The Acreage that avoids the busiest section of Royal Palm Beach Boulevard.
The second segment calls for building a new four-lane road from 60th Street to Northlake Boulevard linking it to an existing one-mile, two-lane stretch of the road that serves the Ibis community.
With more than 1,800 homes, Ibis is a key West Palm Beach voting bloc and its residents have opposed the route, first dedicated in the 1940s, for decades.
For Ibis resident Sal Faso, who coordinates the North County Neighborhood Coalition, which gives political voice to the many gated communities of north county, the delay is not a victory but an opportunity.
“Let’s not waste that time,” he said. “Let’s work together and figure out where it should go and how we solve problems. We can’t continue to sing the same song.”
Cost of road skyrockets to $134 million
With $80 million in hand and $5 million already spent, the state had almost all of the money it would need to begin building both segments in 2023 at an estimated cost of $87.5 million.
The five-year delay, coupled with rising construction costs and design changes to ease environmental hurdles, puts the new project cost at $134 million, an increase of $46 million.
It’s so much, the state suggested stalling $23 million in already approved local projects to get enough money to do the first segment, the widening from Okeechobee to 60th Street, in 2028.
There’s not enough money to put the other segment, extending the road to Northlake, in the plan at all, meaning that segment is not going to be built until 2029 at the earliest.
The proposal will be considered Thursday by the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency, a 21-member body of elected officials that works with the Florida Department of Transportation to plan and prioritize local transportation projects. The meeting is at 9 a.m. at the agency’s downtown West Palm office, 301 Datura St., or can be viewed online.
DEC. 15 UPDATE: The board voted 12-6 to accept FDOT’s plan, urging the state to find money for the local projects displaced by State Road 7. Most of the opposition came from members who object to the construction of SR7 east of Ibis.
The board had the option of objecting but FDOT manages the money. In this case, the money already set aside for SR7 will be distributed to other projects in FDOT’s District 4, which spans Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties.
Gardens Parkway project pushed back
The decision to push back local projects, which are awarded up to $5 million competitively years before they can be built, drew objections Dec. 7 from the TPA’s Technical Advisory Committee, which is made up of transportation planners from the cities and the county.
One of those projects is in Palm Beach Gardens, to add a bike lane and sidewalk on Gardens Parkway near the Gardens Mall.
“It’s an excellent mobility project,” said TAC member Natalie Crowley, planning director for Palm Beach Gardens. “It is a retrofitting of an existing suburban road to create bike lanes, and landscaping enhancements and sidewalk improvements. So I’m just disappointed to hear the shift in those dollars.”
The other projects are for shared use paths on Southwest 18th Street in Boca Raton and Barwick Road in Delray Beach, money to buy four Palm Tran electric buses, improvements to bus stops and a project to slow speed in The Acreage.
Those projects will be given priority in the next funding cycle, TPA planners said. And the TPA board urged that the state find ways to avoid delaying them.
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.