Extending Tri-rail West is an Alternative Worth Considering

By Timothy Hullihan:

(Note:  The following article appeared in the Palm Beach Post on 08/06/2017.  It is republished by the author here.)

As anyone who lives west of the Florida Turnpike in northern Palm Beach County will tell you, traveling north and south is only half their transportation problem. They must first get east to where all of the accommodations for north/south travel are. Extending Tri-rail to Palm Beach Gardens, or Jupiter seems wise until one considers that this is a transportation plan that ignores a region of the county that has few roads, lots of environmentally sensitive land, zero mass transit options, and is about to be crushed by 16,000 new homes and tens of millions of commercial square feet recently approved in the region. Addressing North County’s impending east/west transportation nightmare seems like a higher priority.

Zooming in on the plan to extend Tri-rail north reveals a major obstacle. Tri-rail runs on CSX tracks, and those tracks don’t go to Palm Beach Gardens, or Jupiter. Only FEC tracks do. Somewhere in West Palm Beach a rail connection between CSX and FEC would have to be constructed so Tri-rail can even theoretically arrive at points further north. But, that assumes FEC will allow Tri-rail to use its tracks that will be handling increasing volumes of freight, and the planned Brightline high-speed rail to Orlando in the future.

Zoom in on CSX, and one will see that it already does 2 advantageous things. First, it runs northwest along the Beeline highway adjacent to our North County Airport, and the massive 7 square mile Avenir development, before passing very near Orlando International Airport, and eventually reaching points north of Florida like Washington D.C. Second, it has an established commuter rail system that shuttles 4 million passengers per year between points in Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach. Recent development approvals just made the existing transportation challenges west of the Beeline Highway foreseeably worse. Isn’t an existing rail line in this region the basis for a more actionable plan for a wiser transportation system?

Imagine if Avenir were planned with a downtown train station that could take passengers to Orlando, West Palm Beach, or Miami. Avenir residents would be blessed with a walkable transit option that is connected to many points north and south. If the developers are serious about creating an urban center, rather than just another cars-only suburb, a train station seems to be an essential component. In reverse, Avenir, as the destination the developers hope it will be, would be able to welcome visitors arriving via rail to their walkable downtown.

If Avenir won’t embrace a Tri-rail extension, the commuter rail should at least be extended to the North County Airport. Again, CSX¬ already passes on its north boundary, and a multi-modal transportation hub in this western region, which is approved for explosive growth, might take a few cars off Northlake and the Beeline Highway.

Northlake Boulevard is the main east/west corridor for an existing western population that has been approved to nearly double in size to over 80,000 people. Northlake Boulevard is only 4-lanes wide. County Engineer, George Webb, estimates that the section of Northlake that runs through Grassy Waters Preserve will need to be 12-lanes wide, but it can only be widened to 6-lanes without encroaching into land that protects an essential drinking water source for West Palm Beach, and a rare habitat for endangered plants and animals. So, a bottleneck is brewing on Northlake Boulevard unless some other form of east/west commuting is planned and created.

Now is the time to address the future transportation challenges of the communities that are dependent on Northlake Boulevard for east/west travel. Before Avenir is built for cars-only, ignoring the CSX line that exists on its north boundary, a better Avenir, and a better regional transportation system could be designed.

Timothy Hullihan is an architect living in North Palm Beach, and is a board member of Sustainable Palm Beach County.

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