By Michele Dargan, A Special Report from the Palm Beach Civic Association - During the Palm Beach Civic Association’s November 30 Transportation Forum, Director and Executive Committee member Leo Vecellio Jr. accurately predicted a delayed opening for the new Flagler Memorial Bridge.
Mr. Vecellio, whose company owns Ranger Construction, said he believes the new bridge would have trouble opening two lanes in December and that the entire bridge would not open by February 2017 as projected by the Florida Department of Transportation.
“From what I see as I drive across, they have a lot of work to do,” said Mr. Vecellio.
Some of the 30 attendees expressed disappointment that a representative from the Flagler Memorial Bridge project wasn’t at the meeting.
Angel Gardner, spokeswoman for the Flagler Memorial Bridge project, was scheduled to speak, but cancelled a half hour before the start of the forum, citing illness.
Within 24 hours, the Civic Association received an email from Ms. Gardner, confirming that the opening of two lanes on the bridge has been delayed to Dec. 19.
She later confirmed via email that the entire bridge won’t be open until spring.
“The contractor encountered some challenges with aligning the bascule leaves,” Ms. Gardner said. “Solutions are being implemented, and the contractor is now making significant progress. As of now, the bascule leaves are aligned and operating at full speed. The contractor, PCL, is moving forward with preliminary check-out procedures that will allow the bridge to open on Dec. 19.
“Moving traffic from the old bridge to the new bridge is an important milestone in the project” she said. “It impacts the contractor’s ability to move on to the next phase of work, which includes demolishing the old bridge, completing the approaches, and finishing parts of the new bridge that could not be reached because of the proximity of the old bridge.”
Town construction projects, traffic issues and bridge concerns dominated the discussion.
Ned Barnes, president, explained that the Civic Association holds forums on topics “that everyone is talking about.”
He described the traffic on the island during the summer as “chaos.”
Patricia Strayer, town engineer, outlined the status of summer construction projects. Some of those projects impacted the flow of traffic, she said.
They were: street light upgrades; drainage work on West Indies Drive, Ridgeview Drive and Cherry Lane; mast arm replacements and upgrades on traffic signals; underground utility projects at Lake Towers and at Nightingale Trail and LaPuerta Way; projects at Town Hall Square; gas lines upgraded and three water main improvements at Sunrise Avenue, Everglades Island and the Southern Boulevard Bridge.
The drainage work on Cherry Lane and the undergrounding at LaPuerta will continue, but is not expected to cause traffic problems, Ms. Strayer said.
“We actually scaled back on the number of projects because of how bad traffic was the previous year,” she said.
Mayor Gail Coniglio attended the forum and recommended not using Bradley Place and Cocoanut Row to exit the island over the north bridge during rush hour but to use County Road to Royal Palm Way. She also said there may be a need to extend the timing of the traffic lights during rush hour to help move traffic faster over the bridges.
Scott Kelly, assistant administrator of West Palm Beach spoke about what the city plans to do about traffic flow in and around the downtown area that would help to improve conditions getting on and off the island.
“There simply is no more room to add any type of lanes for traffic,” Mr. Kelly said. “So you’re not going to see new road construction in West Palm Beach.”
The city is conducting a mobility study that starts in January 2017, to look at alternate modes of transportation, Mr. Kelly said. The city wants to encourage people, who come to the downtown area, to park their cars and either walk, bicycle or use the trolley, Mr. Kelly said.
“It is happening,” he said. “We’re seeing dramatic improvement in the use of transit. We’re up to a half million passengers on one trolley route and up to almost 200,000 on the other route, so people are utilizing that option to get out of their cars.
“We’re also going to be doing a parking study,” Mr. Kelly said. “The point is to get people to park once and walk in lieu of driving from point to point. Smart cities are looking at pricing the parking properly to make sure that parking is available for people making short trips, while encouraging people to use the garages and making sure the perception of safety in our garages is improved.”
The city has hired a consultant and the first portion of the study, which also starts January 2017, will focus on the Okeechobee Boulevard corridor from I-95 to the bridge, he said.
“One of the big things is signal timing,” he said. “The county is responsible for signal timing and we’ve encouraged them to do a better job of optimizing the timing of these lights, not just for vehicular traffic, but for the safety of the pedestrians as well. The first task is to study that corridor, the intersections, the flow of traffic and the safety with regards to pedestrians along that corridor.”
Civic Association Director Christopher Storkerson said the one thing that stands out to him is that traffic lights on Okeechobee Boulevard have “zero coordination.” As buildings go up across from CityPlace, more traffic lights are added causing more traffic congestion, he said.
“I would highly suggest someone address that because a lot of that traffic is not going to be addressed by bikes and alternative methods of transportation, but by simply looking at the coordination of the lights,” Mr. Storkerson said.
Mayor Coniglio said she thinks it would be helpful to have representatives from Palm Beach participate in West Palm Beach mobility study.
“My three main concerns are that our residents can get on and off the island, that the emergency response time will be quick enough and that we will be able to move, not only east-west, but north-south,” she said.