Florida Department of Transportation District 4 Program Manager Stacy Miller gave an update on delays to the State Road 7 extension project at last week’s Royal Palm Beach Village Council meeting, and the reaction from council members was plain frustration.
At the Jan. 15 meeting, Miller explained that FDOT recently released its tentative work program for 2016 through 2020, and the plan had moved completion of the final SR 7 connection — 60th Street North to Northlake Blvd. — from 2016 to 2020.
“That draft tentative work program has been presented to the technical advisory committees in Palm Beach County and also the Metropolitan Planning Organization, and we held a public hearing for District 4 in December to discuss the projects that were included in the tentative program,” Miller said. “All of our information has been provided to our central office in Tallahassee, and the next steps are for a public hearing with the Florida Transportation Commission, coming up in March. Included in that draft work program is the State Road 7 project.”
In the previously adopted work program are two segments of State Road 7, the southern segment and the northern one. The northern segment goes from 60th Street to Northlake Blvd. The southern part, with two lanes already finished by the county, runs from Okeechobee Blvd. to Persimmon Blvd. That southern section is now scheduled to be made into four lanes next year, rather than starting work on the northern segment.
Miller explained that the agency was unable to hold northern funding in fiscal year 2017 and ultimately presented a draft tentative work program moving the project to fiscal year 2020, the last year of the tentative work program.
“Originally, the northern piece was in fiscal year 2016, but it had to move to 2017 at a minimum because there is right-of-way acquisition involved in the northern project,” she said. “So, we had to first move it to 2017. Unfortunately, we could no longer afford it, and made every effort to move it to 2018 and 2019, and ultimately we funded the project in fiscal year 2020.”
FDOT presented the work program at the MPO hearing in early December, where MPO members formally objected to the change.
“We understand that the project is the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s No. 1 priority, and that our goal would be during the development of the next work program, fiscal years 2017 through 2021, we would make every effort to try to advance the project as much as possible,” Miller said. “We’ve actually informed our central office that we will be working with that during the next tentative work program to advance the project. Unfortunately, during this process, we did not have enough funding to do the project in fiscal year 2017.”
Vice Mayor David Swift asked whether, if Palm Beach County went to the state legislature and found money, the northern extension could get built any faster, and Miller said the earliest it could begin is 2017. She added, however, that construction could not begin until right-of-way acquisition was finished and the Federal Highway Administration approved the environmental study.
Miller explained that FDOT had submitted the study, and it was returned with comments. FDOT is in the process of responding to those comments. “That process would take us to fiscal year 2017, so yes, we would be ready by that time frame,” she said.
Indian Trail Improvement District Supervisor Michelle Damone, who is the SR 7 liaison for the Western Communities Council, said that the MPO had objected to the shift in financing, and understood that FDOT could not change the plan without legislative approval.
“We have a commitment throughout the entire western communities, including the Village of Royal Palm Beach, to oppose that shift in funding, and it concerns me to hear the words ‘we’ll try’ and ‘hopefully.’ We’ve all been working on this for well over a decade,” Damone said. “We can’t afford to wait until 2017, never mind 2020. That is detrimental to our community.”
Swift pointed out that during the recent Western Communities Council meeting, Wellington had committed $10,000 to continue employing a lobbyist to keep working on the completion of SR 7, and asked that Royal Palm Beach also pitch in $10,000.
“We do need to put pressure on the legislature to get this thing done,” said Swift, who made a motion to approve another $10,000 for lobbying fees, which carried unanimously.
Damone said that she would arrange to have lobbyist Terry Lewis with Lewis, Longman & Walker give the council an update on progress with the effort.
Councilman Jeff Hmara said he would be interested in hearing how the lobbyist money is being spent.
“We all collectively, with the Western Communities Council, have pitched in and pitched in, and one of the things that occurred was, I think the word is, we got ‘surprised,’” Hmara said. “My experience with lobbyists is that we hire people who know what’s going on and who to talk to. Generally speaking, they don’t get ‘surprised.’ I guess that would be my concern at this point.”
Palm Beach County Engineer George Webb told council members that the county is still committed to working with the western communities to see the road completed to Northlake Blvd. “We work shoulder to shoulder, but it seems like it goes on forever,” Webb said. “It is frustrating, this process.”
He said that Palm Beach County Day in Tallahassee, March 3 and 4 during the upcoming legislative session, will be a key opportunity to visit elected officials and staff in the state capital.
“We have a new FDOT secretary, who I think needs to hear from elected officials,” Webb said. “Many of you have gone up in the past for Palm Beach County Day to make your positions known. I want to encourage that to happen.”
Webb said that the county’s lobbyists are ready to help out. “I think that this is a major focus for Palm Beach County to do what we can to get commitments,” he said.