By Paul Scicchitano, Special to Civic Association News
From the tony shops along Worth Avenue, to the iconic Belvedere towers of the Breakers Hotel, and on up to the inlet in the north end, Palm Beach is awash in a sea of orange vests with more construction projects snarling traffic and perplexing motorists than at any time in recent memory.
That’s the bad news.
In the plus column, all of the projects involve necessary improvements to the Town’s aging infrastructure and will mitigate the likelihood of a host of ills, not the least of which involves the possibility of raw sewage spewing onto the streets, failed gas mains, and the inability to hold back the angry seas during a pounding storm.
“We’ve all had the same complaints about seemingly having detours to detours,” confided Pat Cooper, a Director and Treasurer of the Palm Beach Civic Association. “In my 25 years . . . I have never seen the town torn up as much as it’s been, at least on the north end — and I’ve lived in the north end for that entire time.”
Mired at the Paramount
Mr. Cooper was stuck in traffic outside the historic Paramount building for 10 minutes recently “not even moving because the traffic was so congested as a result of five lanes feeding into one, the lights not being coordinated and people coming off of other streets getting ahead of more timid people trying to pull in,” he recalled. “It was just a mess.”
On any given day since May, motorists along midtown and north end roads might have encountered any of a number of detours set up by:
- Florida Public Utilities, which is about halfway through a multi-year program to replace all of its aging steel gas pipes with polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, for safety reasons.
- The City of West Palm Beach, which provides water to Palm Beach residents and is replacing some of its lines.
- AT&T, Florida Power & Light Company and Comcast, which all have ongoing projects on the island.
- The Town of Palm Beach, which has its own crews restoring sewer lines, the North Ocean Boulevard seawall and sewage/storm water pump stations.
- The Florida Department of Transportation, which has been working on a multi-year project to build the new Flagler Memorial Bridge, while keeping the old one open.
- Private home construction projects that have clogged roads in the north end.
Deluge of Complaints
Town officials say they have been swamped with so many complaints that they are unable to say exactly how many because of situations like this one:
“The city of West Palm Beach closed Bradley Place to replace a section of water line. That detour took all the north end traffic and sent it out Wells to County Rd. because Bradley was shut down,” according to Town Director of Public Works Paul Brazil.
“There would be times when Florida Public Utilities (FPU) was doing gas line work in that immediate area so it felt like you were in a detour from the water project, into a detour from the gas line project, but then you drove into the town’s sewer line project area,” he added. “As you continued south in front of the Breakers we’re lining a force main. So you’re in a whole other maintenance plan at that point. It feels like one sent you into another. The problem is that all this work has to get done now.”
Traffic Alert Webpage
The Civic Association met with Public Works and the Police Department to understand the issues, contractor coordination and alert process, and how to let residents know about the best traffic options.
Traffic alerts can be received from the town via email and your mobile phone by signing up on TownOfPalmBeach.com following the Stay Informed tab. Scroll down to the Alert Center.
A solution launched by the Palm Beach Civic Association was to create a Traffic Alert webpage replete with alerts, news, maps, detours and videos to help residents navigate their dizzying commutes as issues changed. All posts on the webpage were also distributed on social media.
When the Civic Association received calls about backups, they called Public Works and the town immediately sent crews and the police to make adjustments to detours, traffic lights, and help direct traffic.
Why All This Now?
Town Engineer William Francis said that the plethora of projects stems from work that was started on the Flagler Memorial (North) Bridge 18 months ago. That’s when the Town placed a moratorium on any non-emergency construction projects involving north-south roads.
“What I’ve told people is it’s a perfect storm with these projects,” said Mr. Francis. “They are all happening at the same time . . . We try to coordinate the activities as best as possible. Some are our projects. Some are other people’s projects, but we have coordination meetings with all the entities on a regular basis. With the gas company, weekly if not more.”
Some residents have wanted to know why projects can’t be spread out over multiple years.
“You can say, ‘does it have to be done this year? Or can it be done next year? Can it be done the year later?’ I don’t know,” countered Mr. Francis. “It’s a 70-year-old pipe that could fail at any time. The consequences, or the alternative, is that the pipe breaks and we have raw sewage in the street.”
Relief In the Season
Come November, all of the construction will be stopped on public streets for the annual crush of the season.
“This is the worst it has been since I’ve been here,” acknowledged Mr. Brazil, a 14-year employee of the Town, who said that residents can expect more of the same in May of 2016 and for several years thereafter, particularly when officials proceed with plans to bury overhead lines in the undergrounding project.
“It’s frustrating to see all the construction and traffic from it, but when it’s finished it will be great,” Mr. Cooper assured. “So I just think about when it’s finished to keep me going and I try to not let my emotions get ahead of me.”
Then there’s the Southern Blvd. Bridge replacement project. So far FDOT is still planning to hold off on bridge construction until the Flagler Bridge is done in 2017.
But according to Mr. Brazil, pre-work on the temporary Southern Blvd. bridge will overlap the timing of the Flagler Bridge construction. “We don’t think there will be traffic impacts to the overlap but we’re keeping an eye out,” he said.