FDOT’s Promise Of State Road 7 Funding An Important Victory

A year after a devastating delay pushed back the funding for the long-planned State Road 7 connection to Northlake Blvd., there is light at the end of the tunnel. Last week, the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization approved a five-year work program that includes moving $50 million for the proposed extension up to 2017. This is great news for the western communities — and anyone else who cares about a working transportation network. The Oct. 15 decision had the MPO approve the latest funding plan developed by the Florida Department of Transportation.

The four-mile extension is considered by residents of the western communities to be essential, not only as an evacuation route during hurricane season, but also to create a vital infrastructure link that has been missing for decades. The primary objection to construction has come from the City of West Palm Beach, which alleges that the project could cause environmental problems and endanger the city’s water supply. Critics also argue that the road, which runs near the Grassy Waters Preserve and along the east side of the Ibis Golf & Country Club to Northlake Blvd., also threatens to damage critical habitat for several endangered species, including the Everglades snail kite. However, plans call for significant mitigation of the environmental concerns, including a host of protections separating the roadway from the preserve.

Supporters of the roadway include nearly all governmental officials from the municipalities of Royal Palm Beach, Wellington and Loxahatchee Groves, along with the Indian Trail Improvement District in The Acreage, two local chambers of commerce and most nearby residents. While West Palm Beach officials — including Mayor Jeri Muoio, who lives in the area where the extension is planned — claim they oppose the extension based on environmental concerns, supporters note that the City of West Palm Beach allowed thousands of homes and several roads to be built on all other sides of the Grassy Waters Preserve when it suited the city’s purposes. Further, West Palm Beach’s developments along the north side of Okeechobee Blvd. only exist because of an agreement to build the SR 7 extension to Northlake.

You would think by now, this issue would have been resolved. In February, the Federal Highway Administration determined that the stretch of road will have no significant impacts on the environment, including Grassy Waters. The so-called “Finding of No Significant Impact” allows the FDOT to apply for permits — which are considered routine — from the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. However, most people anticipate that the legal maneuverings to delay this extension will continue, at least for a while.

This is incredibly frustrating to the western communities, which have waited patiently for decades for the completion of this long-planned roadway. Two phases of the 8.5-mile-long SR 7 extension north of Okeechobee Blvd. have already been completed, both by Palm Beach County at the expense of county taxpayers, since Tallahassee has found itself completely unable to make the improvements necessary to one of the state’s key arteries over the course of 30 years. It’s this third phase that has been the subject of numerous delays. The state went through a years-long approval and design process, only to once again kick the can down the road last year, rather than upholding the promises that were made when West Palm Beach’s Okeechobee Blvd. and Ibis developments were approved. Thankfully, this year’s funding news is better.

Whether it is Palm Beach County taking needed money slated for Seminole Pratt Whitney Road improvements to fund Palm Tran during a budget crisis, or state officials bowing to the threats of baseless lawsuits, the end result is the same. The road infrastructure in the western communities remains woefully inadequate for the needs of current residents, let alone the thousands more that recent and future county approvals will bring.

Let’s hope that the wait for the final leg of SR 7 won’t be too much longer.