The Florida Department of Transportation’s State Road 7 extension project from Okeechobee Blvd. to Northlake Blvd. is currently on hold due to an expired permit while FDOT decides on its next step.
The permit from the Northern Palm Beach County Improvement District expired during the road’s protracted litigation brought by the City of West Palm Beach, which has long opposed the road’s route along the eastern edge of the Ibis Golf & Country Club.
As part of a settlement agreement last month regarding the cleanup of the Ibis lakes that were found to be polluting the city’s water reservoir, the Northern Palm Beach County Improvement District agreed not to renew the permit without approval from the City of West Palm Beach. City officials hope denying the road its drainage will end up scuttling the entire project.
Guillermo Canedo, assistant to FDOT Public Information Director Barbara Kelleher, said the entire project, including the widening of the existing two-lane road from Okeechobee Blvd. to 60th Street North, as well as the continuation of the road to Northlake Blvd., is now in limbo.
“Right now, the project is on hold,” he said. “Although the project manager did receive his letter to proceed, we sent him a letter asking him to suspend while we conduct an administrative review, just to make sure we’ve done our due diligence with all departments. We’re conducting that review now, and once it’s conducted, we’ll give that contractor additional facts.”
Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay said her staff told her they were not particularly worried that the issue would stop the project, although it will delay it.
“I have not had a chance to call the Region 4 [FDOT] office myself,” McKinlay said. “Staff has made some inquiries with the offices up in Tallahassee, and they’re supposed to be reporting back to me when they get that information. There doesn’t seem to be any concern among my staff. They’re not getting the feeling that this project is going away.”
Indian Trail Improvement District President Betty Argue said it was her understanding that FDOT would condemn the lakes at Ibis, where the road’s stormwater is supposed to drain, in order to get around the permit glitch.
“I think the condemnation process is subject to challenge, but I don’t know,” Argue said. “I’m not an attorney, so I don’t know what the legalities are. I’m sure with whatever abilities West Palm Beach has to challenge it, they will continue to do so until they’ve exhausted all their resources.”
There has been talk that FDOT would start the project’s southern portion, which is planned for widening to four lanes and does not require a drainage permit, but Argue does not believe that will happen.
She has discussed the situation with Northern Palm Beach County Improvement District Administrator O’Neal Bardin.
“He explained to me that the permit expired because of the fact that it was a one-year permit, and it had a clause in it that they had to give a notice of construction proceedings within six months after the permit was given, so they never gave the notice of construction,” Argue said. “With the agreement they made with the City of West Palm Beach, they have to approve any of those permits, which, of course, they are not going to do.”
Argue said that West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio has always pushed for a project farther west of Ibis through The Acreage community, which Argue finds unacceptable.
“The traffic has been coming through The Acreage for a long time, and the county doesn’t have any plans for widening Coconut [Blvd.] any time soon, and we can’t bear any more traffic on Coconut,” she said.
Argue added that finishing the southern portion while waiting for the legal issues to clear up would make traffic in The Acreage worse, with more traffic dumping onto the outlets at Orange Grove Blvd., Persimmon Blvd. and 60th Street North.
“It’s going to end at 60th until they get that connection to Northlake, and that’s going to have the potential of increasing traffic through The Acreage, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Argue said.
She added that the original agreement connecting the SR 7 extension called for an extremely poor road service level of D on the residential outlet roads until the Northlake connection is completed.
“The level of service should not be D on those roads,” she said. “That’s ridiculous.”
Argue explained that if the level of service sinks below D, the district does have the ability to close it off.
“However, I don’t think we would be allowed to close it off at this point, when it has been opened as long as it has,” Argue said. “And then you’re going to have the public pressure of people saying, ‘Why are you closing this off? You’re just making the situation worse?’ So, it has put our district in a bit of a pickle.”