Leaders from across the western communities are not happy with a recent Florida Department of Transportation decision that threatens to further delay State Road 7’s long-planned extension.
The Western Communities Council agreed Wednesday to continue funding lobbyist Lewis, Longman & Walker to advocate for the completion of the State Road 7 connection to Northlake Blvd., which has had its funding delayed by state transportation officials.
The Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization on Monday was informed that financing had been delayed as a result of anticipated litigation from the City of West Palm Beach, and had redistributed some of the funding, including $20 million for a temporary bridge on Southern Blvd. connecting to the Town of Palm Beach.
Attorney Bob Diffenderfer with Lewis, Longman & Walker gave an update on SR 7, including a memo from lobbyist Terry Lewis dated Dec. 1 giving the status of the SR 7 environmental assessment.
“Since the date of that memo, a couple of different things have happened,” he said, pointing out that the Florida Department of Transportation had transmitted a “finding of no significant impact” (FONSI) report to the Federal Highway Administration.
“We just got a copy of the transmittal letter dated Dec. 4 today,” Diffenderfer said. “As I was walking out of the office today, I was handed a copy of the document, which I haven’t yet had a chance to read, but it went to [the Federal Highway Administration] at the end of last week.”
He said the FHA’s normal review time is 30 days, but that given the interest in the project by at least one member of Congress, it’s not clear whether the review will be done in that time. “It may need to take an additional level of review, which will delay that process a bit,” Diffenderfer said.
He said he still anticipates the FHA signing off on the FONSI report in early 2015.
Diffenderfer also commented on the MPO’s review and objections Monday to the revised financing plan that tentatively pushes the start of the SR 7 extension from 2016 to 2020.
He said the stated reason by FDOT District Secretary James Wolfe for the funding shift was they were anticipating some delay in initial federal highway approval and a challenge from West Palm Beach.
“He did say that the department was not happy with that result… but part of the FDOT funding issue is every year there are projects which are delayed, and every year the department has the ability to sit down and look at its work program and the projects which are going to be delayed and do something with redeploying those funds,” Diffenderfer said. “This group needs to advocate to have those funds re-advanced, if you will, and/or to advocate for having other funds become available.”
He said the SR 7 project is ready to go and FDOT does not like sitting on those types of projects, but if it faces litigation, FDOT is prone to reallocating available financing.
Diffenderfer pointed out that Palm Beach County Engineer George Webb had talked about advancing some money to get the project started.
SR 7 liaison Michelle Damone, an Indian Trail Improvement District supervisor, emphasized that the project is still approved and that the MPO had voted to object to the revised state work plan.
“I think we all should, at least for a few seconds, embrace the fact that there is a victory here that the road is going to get connected to Northlake,” Damone said.
She said that some of the SR 7 funding has been shifted to widen the completed portion of the road to four lanes from Okeechobee Blvd. to Persimmon Blvd., although she would have preferred to have the connection completed first.
Damone suggested that the Western Communities Council draft a resolution supporting the MPO’s objection, which members can then take back to their respective elected bodies for approval.
“Unfortunately, every two years, new people get elected, and everybody has short-term memory,” Damone said. “Nobody remembers history from five years ago, and I don’t want this to get lost during those changes.”
District 6 County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said it was her understanding that FDOT has to get its work plan approved by the legislature. “There is still some chance to lobby the legislature to get this project bumped up,” she said.
Diffenderfer said that at the MPO meeting, Wolfe was asked what the implications were of objecting to the work plan when it was supposed to reflect the priorities of the community.
“He said, ‘If you’re not happy with those priorities, you need to communicate that fact,’” Diffenderfer said. “I think the MPO’s objection was entirely consistent with the secretary’s invitation, but there is an opportunity to influence that plan in Tallahassee.”
Western Communities Council Chair Howard Coates, a member of the Wellington Village Council, said he supported a continued effort for the completion of the road and would have no problem persuading his council to approve a resolution.
“I think we need to do everything possible to object to this, and try to push the envelope a bit in terms of trying to get the priorities shifted over funding,” Coates said.
Royal Palm Beach Vice Mayor David Swift said he would also support a resolution, and like Damone, was not happy about shifting priority to four-laning the completed section.
“The fight we’re trying to do is get a connection through to Northlake,” Swift said.
McKinlay said the county-financed portion of the extension between Persimmon Blvd. and 60th Street is almost complete, and a ribbon-cutting is planned at 60th Street at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 7.
McKinlay added that she was troubled that about $20 million had been reallocated to build a temporary bridge at Southern Blvd. to connect to Palm Beach while the permanent bridge was rebuilt.
Royal Palm Beach Village Manager Ray Liggins said that the Southern Blvd. Bridge serves only a handful of homes, while the SR 7 extension will serve thousands.
Wellington Village Manager Paul Schofield made a motion to draft a resolution opposing the funding shift, which carried unanimously.