The Loxahatchee Groves Town Council agreed Tuesday, Sept. 21 to hold a special meeting regarding grants for improvements to Okeechobee Blvd. so it can get hard numbers on how much the town would have to pay.
The grant money through the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency is for improvements that include construction of an equestrian trail along Okeechobee Blvd., horse crossings and a roundabout.
Mary McNicholas with Geoffrey B. Sluggett & Associates, the council’s liaison with the TPA and Palm Beach County, said County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay has expressed her support for the town and for the projects. TPA Executive Director Nick Uhren sent a letter that he wanted read into the record.
Uhren wrote that the TPA would provide funding for two transportation infrastructure projects.
“Specifically, the TPA is providing $0.9 million for the trail project and $1.2 million for the roundabout project, for a total of $2.1 million, [which is] 90 percent of the estimated $2.3 million construction costs,” Uhren wrote. “The TPA, at the request of the town, has also aligned the timing for these two projects together in fiscal year 2024 to enable the county to design and construct them as a single project on behalf of the town… I am urging you to approve the interlocal agreement with staff direction to finalize the necessary revisions with county staff so that these two critical transportation [projects] can proceed to design and ultimate construction.”
The letter stated that the projects would serve to actively manage the speed of motorized vehicles and provide separated facilities and safe crossings for pedestrians, cyclists and equestrians.
McNicholas said there have been numerous negotiations with high-level members of Palm Beach County government, including McKinlay, and that Florida Department of Transportation contingency costs would be available to be held in a surety bond or as a letter of credit, which would limit up front cash to about $420,000.
“Palm Beach County now recognizes the seven-year useful lifespan of the project,” she said. “Language was added to include the town in all design phases from the beginning to the end… Before, they wanted to handle the entire thing.”
McNicholas said the only thing the town was not able to get was maintenance by the county, which had been requested by Mayor Robert Shorr.
Palm Beach County Senior Traffic Engineer Trish Barr told the council there would be several costs to be incurred by the town, totaling several hundred thousand dollars, on top of $1.1 million in design costs to be done by the county.
Councilwoman Phillis Maniglia said the concept of the horse trails, crossings and roundabout had come out of the town’s Uniform Land Development Committee.
“They had originally come up with the idea of the roundabout idea and the horse crossings,” Maniglia said. “The whole idea of this project was for connectivity for the north and south sides of the town, and because we’re being inundated by immense [development] building these huge cities around us, we did not want our town to become a cut-through.”
Maniglia asked Barr if she thought the projects would be a help in that goal and discourage cut-through traffic, making Okeechobee more of a main street and not a six-lane road, as stated in a letter from Palm Beach County Engineer David Ricks.
Barr said she is an equestrian and boarded horses in Loxahatchee Groves for about 10 years. “I’m familiar with the area and driving through the area,” she said. “As a multi-use trail, you would redefine the corridor. It will give a presence and will slow people down.”
She said she had been told by people who use Okeechobee Blvd. that they had become accustomed to the 30-mph speed limit imposed by the town.
“It’s about redefining it again. This has been successful in other places that utilize trails to connect,” Barr said, adding that there is nothing in the county’s transportation plan to widen Okeechobee Blvd. at this point. “Also, the county has recognized, as the state does, that Florida needs to improve the way it treats everyone else on the road, not just vehicles.”
McNicholas acknowledged that there is a letter in the agenda package from Ricks that states while the county does not have funding, it still has plans for four-laning Okeechobee Blvd. by 2030 and six-laning by 2035, although putting other infrastructure on the road would mitigate those plans.
Shorr said he was unhappy with the costs the town would have to pay over the $2.1 million grant.
“Any cost over $2.1 million, the town is paying,” Shorr said. “The county is making money on this. They’re getting paid to do this.”
Vice Mayor Laura Danowski asked if the town can afford to pay its approximate $1.2 million share of the cost.
Assistant Town Manager Francine Ramaglia said the agreement is not finished with final negotiations and pointed out that when the town had first talked about the project, they were financing half of it. “Because of the timing, and the two projects coming together, and because the big portion of the cost is design, they want to get the design this year. Your answer depends on these negotiations,” Ramaglia said.
McNicholas said a decision must be made in the next week due to an FDOT deadline of Sept. 30 for funding availability.
Councilwoman Marge Herzog said she favored the project and wanted to get it approved. “We need to move ahead with this project,” Herzog said.
Danowski made a motion for the hard, finalized numbers to be brought back to council in a special meeting before the deadline so that the town knows what it is going to eventually spend.
The council voted unanimously to hold the special meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 28 at 4 p.m.