By Timothy Hullihan:
Much has been written and debated publicly about the proposed State Road 7 extension north to Northlake Boulevard. The debate pits the rural residents of northwest Palm Beach County against a gated golf community, so there’s enough demographic polarization to keep the discussion lively and interesting. Yet, both camps would be wise to join forces against looming developments that will make the State Road 7 project seem like a bike path by comparison.
I had the opportunity to sit down with County Engineer, George Webb, to discuss the traffic implications of 2 large developments planned in, and around, the western communities of Northern Palm Beach County that are approximately the same size as Minto West, approved earlier this year. GL Homes, and Avenir together would bring roughly 22,000 new residents to this rural part of the county on top of the approximately 14,000 already approved at Minto West. From just a traffic planning perspective, the facts are disturbing on many levels.
The relatively small number of people that chose the tranquility of pinelands and dirt roads dozens of years ago say the State Road 7 extension is an overdue reliever road, and it cannot be built soon enough. Yet, they may not realize that when it comes to estimating the additional traffic on existing roadways from these 2 huge developments, the reliever road they crave is already being used to justify and soften their stated impact.
The Ibis Community says the road project will threaten the environmentally sensitive lands to their east, and they have a powerful ally in the City of West Palm Beach because that sensitive land happens to be an important part of the city’s water supply. They may not realize, however, that a 12-lane wide Northlake Boulevard through the heart of the Grassy Waters Preserve is a far greater threat to not only the water within these pristine wetlands, but to life as we know it in Northern Palm Beach County.
The State Road 7 debate is a distraction that is dividing 2 communities that have a much larger common enemy they must fight together.
Below is a map that shows the needed road improvements that the county’s traffic engineers have concluded will be needed to maintain the established minimum level of service on the effected roadways when the 109,000 daily trips from Avenir and GL Homes are added to Minto’s projected trips and then inserted into these presently rural western enclaves. The map is a combination of the separate traffic studies prepared by each developer.
(Please “click” the map above to enlarge it.)
The realities are head-spinning. Northlake Boulevard west of Ibis presently accommodates approximately 28,400 trips per day. That grows to 109,000 daily trips, or a 384% increase in traffic, if these developments are approved. East of Ibis, these 109,000 trips combine with the existing trips generated by Ibis and a staggering projection for the future of Northlake Boulevard to the east plays out. Twelve lanes through the Grassy Waters Preserve lead to massive flyovers at the Beeline Highway and Military Trail (marked with blue dots and called “urban interchanges” in the PBC Traffic Map above).
Though the 12-lanes through the Grassy Waters Preserve is the most shocking, especially since there is no practical way to implement this, the impacts of these proposed developments are more far reaching. As the engineering map shows, there’s a 12-lane section needed on Southern Boulevard; 10-lanes on the Beeline Highway; 10-lanes on Okeechobee Boulevard with a flyover at State Road 7; 6-lanes at PGA Boulevard and Indiantown Road west of the Turnpike; and much more.
Probably the most interesting thing I learned from Mr. Webb is that none of these improvements have to be put in-place by the developers of the projects. They simply have to contribute their “proportional share” of the estimated funds needed to make all of the projected roadway improvements their projects will make painfully necessary down the road.
One of the results of the dismantling of the State Department of Community Affairs to make us a more developer-friendly State was the removal of the logical connection between development and the needed improvements to transportation systems they cause. Our State leaders saw this as too onerous on land developers and too restrictive to population growth, job-creation and tax revenues we are entirely too focused on. Although developments and their associated roadway improvements were joined for decades, today a developer just has to write a check for his estimated share of a hypothetical set of roadway improvements that may or may not ever get constructed. Worse, the higher first-costs of developing alternative means of transportation are not even considered in the calculations, even though they will have to be a considered where Grassy Waters meets Northlake Boulevard. There simply isn’t enough land within the existing right-of-way to build 12-lanes of traffic, unless it is expanded horrifically deep into the scenic preserve.
So, please, turn your attention away from the State Road 7 sideshow, and become aware of a much greater, and more imminent set of problems. Minto West is already approved. Avenir and GL Homes will be seeking approval in the coming months. If approved, and since nobody in power is talking about alternative transportation methods, we the people will have 2 regrettable car-centered choices. Either build a massively expansive system of roadways at the expense of much of the remaining scenic beauty of our county (and any hope of a smarter transportation network), or get used to roadway congestion and spending a lot of time in our cars.
Timothy Hullihan is an architect and freelance writer living in North Palm Beach.