Hmara: West Palm Opposition To SR 7 Project Continues

Royal Palm Beach Vice Mayor Jeff Hmara, Councilman Dave Swift and members of village staff heard reports on the status of the State Road 7 extension from 60th Street to Northlake Blvd. at a recent Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce meeting, where they were told that the City of West Palm Beach continues to try to block the project.

The extension would run along the east side of the Ibis Golf & Country Club, where West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio resides, and along the west side of the Grassy Waters Preserve. West Palm Beach officials are opposing the road on environmental grounds.

Hmara gave an update on the project at a Royal Palm Beach Village Council meeting last week.

“We heard from the Florida Department of Transportation project manager and also our county engineer, who both indicated that opposition continues, specifically from West Palm Beach,” Hmara said, adding that opponents have focused on SR 7 interfering with endangered bird species and the risk of hazardous material from a roadway accident.

FDOT and county officials have offered several different approaches to reduce the alleged risks, but opponents have ignored them, Hmara said.

“The good news is that the project is fully funded in fiscal years 2016 and 2017, but the bad news is if the delays continue, that money could actually go away, and that would jeopardize the entire project,” Hmara said. “Offsetting that risk of losing the money because of the delays is the fact that FDOT continues to do their design work in parallel with some of the other activities that are underway, so there is a continued effort to make this project happen.”

Hmara urged advocates of the road to remain engaged in the process and weigh in whenever the need arises.

“We did get some help from the local congressional delegation in a letter that was sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from one of the federal agencies in support of the project, so we may want to go back to the delegation and seek a second letter at an appropriate point in time,” Hmara said.

Swift said he was concerned that FDOT had not provided specific discussion points on the project to local governments.

“If I understand my conversation with the village manager, FDOT has not provided talking points,” he said. “Without that information, it’s very difficult to lobby anybody, and that is a really key issue. We’ve been waiting and waiting on that stuff. To me that’s a real critical thing that needs to be resolved.”

On Tuesday, Village Manager Ray Liggins said he had requested the talking points from FDOT but had not received them.

Councilman Fred Pinto predicted FDOT will express its concerns from its own perspective. “They are going through their process doing their environmental impact review process,” he said. “It’s a lengthy process, but from my conversations, their attitude is that they understand all the objections that are being put forth. They believe that their analysis will be able to demonstrate significant mitigation to the extent that the issues are invalidated. They also tell me this is not their first rodeo. They’ve been down this road before, and they are pushing forward with this project.”

Mayor Matty Mattioli said he had heard similar comments from FDOT officials during a public hearing at the South Florida Fairgrounds in March 2012.

“That road will be built,” Mattioli said.

More than 1,000 residents had attended that hearing, with advocates outnumbering opponents by about 2-to-1.

At that meeting, FDOT officials explained that the nearest north/west 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 completing SR 7 as a high priority.

The project proposes to widen the SR 7 extension from two to four lanes from Okeechobee Blvd. to 60th Street North, and construct a new four-lane divided highway from 60th Street North to Northlake Blvd.

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.

West Palm Beach, however, has lobbied in Tallahassee with the state government and in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce officials.

Meanwhile, the Palm Beach County Commission is forging ahead on its portion of the SR 7 extension with the purchase of 24 parcels of land on 60th Street North along the M Canal in The Acreage to connect Persimmon Blvd. to 60th Street, and then Royal Palm Beach Blvd.

The link will enable SR 7 pass-through traffic to make the connection on the three-lane 60th Street North link, rather than Persimmon and Orange Grove boulevards, which are intended ultimately to serve primarily local Acreage traffic.

The project includes replacing the Royal Palm Beach Blvd. bridge over the M Canal and reconstructing the intersection with 60th Street North to improve the line of vision for drivers entering Royal Palm Beach Blvd. from 60th Street. A traffic signal will also be installed at the intersection.