The Palm Beach County Commission approved its five-year road improvement plan last week with Roebuck Road intact despite an effort by Commissioner Paulette Burdick to have it removed.
At the July 1 meeting, officials from Royal Palm Beach, including Councilman Richard Valuntas, Vice Mayor Jeff Hmara and Village Manager Ray Liggins, made pleas to keep the road on the five-year plan, saying that it will be crucial in the future for transportation in the western communities.
At a recent Palm Beach County Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting, members, led by West Palm Beach representatives, voted to remove Roebuck Road from its Transportation Improvement Plan, although the MPO controls only state and federal money and is not financing the county project.
The county has already spent millions of dollars on planning and right-of-way acquisition for Roebuck Road.
Hmara said Roebuck Road would be a critical part of the transportation plan for Royal Palm Beach now that Okeechobee Blvd. can no longer be expanded.
“I’ve spoken to you about a number of things over the years, most recently about several major developments going on in the western communities,” Hmara said. “These developments no doubt will change the western communities forever. My intent is to make sure that is a positive change.”
Hmara supported keeping Roebuck Road’s western extension.
“We are certain to see increases in road traffic, especially on Okeechobee and Southern boulevards,” he said. “My particular concern is Okeechobee. Increasing that traffic by thousands of cars, which is what the traffic estimates say, certainly will increase the demand on what is a fairly limited road network.”
Hmara added that Okeechobee Blvd. is physically constrained from adding more lanes. He asked the commissioners to closely monitor traffic there, and, if it reaches proportions that are not tolerable, to begin work on Roebuck Road’s western extension to State Road 7, as it is currently planned.
Liggins said he appreciated the efforts to keep Roebuck Road in the county’s five-year plan and asked that the county continue to do so.
“While it has always been in the fifth year, other improvements have taken place that have alleviated traffic on Okeechobee Blvd.,” he said. “When it was a four-lane road and became over capacity, the six-lane relieved that, and now we have the final eight-lane road, which was a grant agreement with the state and the county. There was also an assurance that we would protect that roadway from future development and failing again. There is no tenth lane planned for the future. Roebuck Road is that tenth lane.”
Liggins said that every planning effort to date has shown a need for the road.
“The need hasn’t been there because of the economy for the last five years,” Liggins said. “We do see that coming back, and the projection is there. To be a sustainable community, our residents need to get to their jobs. With Okeechobee failing, it becomes much more unbearable on the community.”
Commissioner Jess Santamaria pointed out that Roebuck Road’s extension was a requirement of West Palm Beach’s westward expansion, put on the map along with approving three large communities along Okeechobee Blvd.
“They started with River Walk, then Andros Isle, then Baywinds, each one high-density developments of small, zero-lot-line homes, attached villas and townhouses, condominiums and apartments, each one packing as many homes as possible into a land area,” Santamaria said.
Traffic relievers such as Roebuck Road were required by that approval, he noted.
“The county commissioners and engineers at that time realized the impact on Okeechobee and felt there was a need to alleviate that impact through Roebuck Road,” Santamaria said. “To get the approvals for those high-density developments, West Palm Beach then made a contractual agreement that there would be this road to mitigate the impact of their developments. That was the common knowledge, that was the logic, that was the reasoning.”
Santamaria added that he did not find the logic in the developments being built on environmentally sensitive land and then objecting to the construction of required roads on environmental grounds.
“There is hypocrisy here among some individuals,” he said, adding that with the recovering economy, the need for Roebuck Road is returning.
Palm Beach County Vice Mayor Paulette Burdick said the way of looking at things has changed from 20 years ago.
“There is nothing more important to the residents of Palm Beach County than to have clean water,” Burdick said. “This Roebuck Road goes right through Grassy Waters, which provides water for the City of West Palm Beach, Palm Beach, South Palm Beach, and it’s conceivable that in the future, because of saltwater intrusion, it may lend aid to other coastal cities. What happened in decisions made 20 years ago should not force us to continue to make a bad decision today.”
Burdick, who sits on the MPO, said there was extensive discussion about the three roads that border Grassy Waters Preserve, and it was decided that there was no significant benefit for Roebuck Road.
Palm Beach County Mayor Priscilla Taylor pointed out that there is a significant buffer between the Roebuck Road right of way and the preserve.
Palm Beach County Engineer George Webb also pointed out that the Roebuck Road easement does not go through the preserve.
“The right of way is there, and you, the Board of County Commissioners, control that right of way,” Webb said.
He added that the traffic count on Okeechobee Blvd. between Jog Road and SR 7 went up 6 percent in 2014. “That’s an incredible jump,” Webb said.
Commissioner Shelley Vana favored keeping Roebuck Road in the plan.
“This has been historically a very contentious situation, but we do need east-west relievers, and this has been one that we, in good faith, apparently made commitments, and so did West Palm Beach,” Vana said. “We need to make sure that in the squeeze, Royal Palm Beach doesn’t get squeezed out.”
Commissioner Mary Lou Berger said she did not believe anything had changed in that area except the traffic, and she would support keeping Roebuck Road in the five-year plan. Commissioner Steven Abrams also supported Webb’s recommendation to keep Roebuck Road in the five-year plan.
Burdick made a motion, seconded by Commissioner Hal Valeche, to have Roebuck Road removed, which failed 5-2.
Abrams subsequently made a motion to approve the five-year plan as submitted by staff, which carried 6-1, with Burdick dissenting.