More than 1,000 residents Wednesday attended the final Florida Department of Transportation public hearing on the completion of State Road 7 to Northlake Blvd., with advocates outnumbering opponents about 2-to-1.
The connection would finish the roadway between Okeechobee Blvd. and Northlake Blvd. to meet the growing travel needs of central Palm Beach County residents.
FDOT officials noted the nearest north/south connections are Florida’s Turnpike to the east and Seminole Pratt Whitney Road to the west, and that the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization and other transportation agencies have identified the completion of SR 7 as a high-priority road.
The selected corridor would complete the connection ending at Persimmon Blvd. now, and continue north to 60th Street North, turn east along 60th Street, and head north again along the original SR 7 corridor designated by the FDOT in 1940, part of which has been built from Northlake Blvd. south to the Ibis east entrance.
The project proposes to widen SR 7 from two to four lanes from Okeechobee Blvd. to 60th Street and construct a new four-lane divided highway from 60th Street to Northlake.
The estimated cost for the project is about $70 million for construction and about $16.5 million for mitigation. The project is fully financed, according to FDOT officials.
The completion of the extension has been opposed by the City of West Palm Beach and Mayor Jeri Muoio, who lives in Ibis. The city’s objections have been on environmental grounds and concerns that a hazardous waste spill could contaminate the West Palm Beach water supply to the east of the proposed extension. The most recent objection has been that environmental mitigation would be too expensive.
Commissioner Jess Santamaria was the first speaker at the public hearing, which went on for about two hours. Santamaria pointed out that the Palm Beach County Commission earlier that day had approved a resolution supporting the completion of the road.
“This roadway has been on the county’s long-range transportation plan since 1972,” Santamaria said. “The county has already constructed a portion of this roadway north to Persimmon Blvd., and the segment was built with full protection of the Pond Cypress Natural Area, and this extension is considered a necessary connection for adequate traffic flow in the western area.”
Muoio spoke next, urging the FDOT to exercise a no-build option.
“In these tough economic times, the conversation should be about conservative fiscal responsibility,” she said. “It should include the question why responsible government agencies support a road to nowhere costing the taxpayers two to three times more than it should. There are reasonable alternatives available to address the traffic considerations of every citizen that supports this road. Those alternatives should be explored so that the cost of the road is not unnecessarily escalated due to the cost to mitigate adverse impacts to water and environmental habitats.”
She added that the West Palm Beach Water Catchment Area provides potable water to 300,000 people. “Much of our economy is dependent on having this ready supply of this precious resource,” she said, noting that in February, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service wrote to FDOT that the extension would result in significant loss of fish and wildlife habitat and public conservation lands.
Muoio added that her residency in Ibis is not relevant to the issue. “Moving forward with this project is fiscally and environmentally irresponsible and puts our children’s future quality of life at great risk,” she said.
Indian Trail Improvement District President Michelle Damone thanked residents of the western communities for their strong showing. “Let me tell you what the conversation should be about,” Damone said. “It should be about fiscal responsibility. [The proposed route] is fiscally responsible and environmentally sensitive. This road is completely funded by the state, and construction dollars are identified for 2014-15. This conversation should be about the health, safety and welfare of human life. The road is not in the water catchment area. Emergency response time will [improve] and an evacuation route will now be in place. This conversation should be about the cost benefit of 40,000 residents of The Acreage that need road access for service and jobs.”
Damone also pointed out that when Ibis, River Walk, Andros Isle and Baywinds were built, West Palm Beach had committed to support the completion of not only the SR 7 extension, but extensions of Roebuck and Jog roads as well, all of which the city has since reneged on. Damone added that the state’s Project Development & Environmental (PD&E) study acknowledged that there is not adequate road linkage running north and south for travel demands in the western communities.
Other public officials speaking in favor of the extension’s completion included Royal Palm Beach Mayor Matty Mattioli, Loxahatchee Groves Councilman Ron Jarriel, Loxahatchee Groves Mayor Dave Browning, Wellington Councilwoman Anne Gerwig, Indian Trail Improvement District Supervisor Ralph Bair, Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District Supervisor John Ryan and Royal Palm Beach Councilwoman Martha Webster, who said she was confident the extension would be a “beautiful roadway,” based on the work that has been completed so far.
The proposed schedule for the project is to complete the design in November 2013 and begin construction in July 2014. More information about the project is available at www.sr7extension.com.