With massive growth expected in the western communities over the next two decades, state and local planners face a big question: How will Southern Boulevard handle the load?
State engineers and consultants have been working on the answer for the past two years as part of the State Road 80 Corridor Action Plan, a study to develop steps to help the county’s primary east-west thoroughfare deal with an estimated 100,000 travelers a day using Southern Boulevard, also known as State Road 80, in Palm Beach County by 2040.
They presented their preliminary findings Thursday to the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization’s governing board, highlighting three options state consultants have determined would best fit the needs of the western area.
Whatever the answer is, it won’t include trains — a feature attractive to some planning agency board members who had hoped a light rail system would be on the table.
“The corridor’s not right for transit investment,” said planner Jessica Josselyn, of state consultant Kittelson & Associates.
Instead, she said the focus should be on moving cars as efficiently as possible along State Road 80 — something Royal Palm Beach Mayor Fred Pinto said “is kind of going backwards.”
“We need to look at the corridors that take us east-west,” not just north-south, for investing in public transit projects, Pinto added. “That,” he said, referring to the study’s findings, “just doesn’t make sense at all.”
In a January letter to the MPO, Palm Tran and Palm Beach County’s engineering department, the Florida Department of Transportation said light rail was not an option for several reasons, including:
- The number of existing Palm Tran riders along Southern Boulevard is fewer than 1,000 a day.
- Land-use plans wouldn’t support transit beyond an express bus service, which the study supports.
- Local agencies have not budgeted for the cost of a train line.
“It is very, very important to DOT to keep this facility moving,” Josselyn said, noting the distance between the Glades and coastal communities poses issues for people seeking jobs. She pointed to the nearly $350 million spent on Southern Boulevard since 2003, with another $117 million in projects planned. And all of that money was spent over the years to expand the road in anticipation of thousands of tires rolling along Southern each day as the western communities have continued to expand over the past 15 years.
“That’s highway level,” Josselyn said of the projected daily traffic on Southern. “That’s a lot of traffic that you’re trying to use regardless of which mode you’re using.”
A public hearing will be scheduled for October, Josselyn said. After that, the consultants will report back to the MPO board, then complete the study by the end of January. The step after that would be determining Southern Boulevard’s future design, followed by environmental studies and eventually construction — all of which would take several years.
Here are the three options, plus improvement ideas for the Glades, presented to the MPO board. All three of the alternatives include a plan for a Palm Tran express bus service between Belle Glade and West Palm Beach.
Widen six-lane Southern to eight lanes from Binks Forest Drive to Royal Palm Beach Boulevard. Between Royal Palm Beach Boulevard and Congress Avenue, change intersections to an alternative format, where left turns are completed past the intersection and intersections themselves are straight-through or right-turn only. Create a multi-use path on the south side of Southern.
Widen Southern to eight lanes from Binks Forest Drive to Royal Palm Beach Boulevard. From Royal Palm Beach Boulevard to Congress, create a six-lane higher-speed mainline with two lanes of frontage road to each side. Use alternative intersection format where Southern meets Forest Hill Boulevard. Create a multi-use path on the south side of Southern.
Widen Southern to eight lanes from Binks Forest Drive to Forest Hill Boulevard. From Forest Hill to Congress, build a four-lane, elevated highway above a six-lane frontage road system. The elevated highway would have limited access and require a less right-of-way than option two. It also would allow for the creation of a continuous, protected bike lane along the road.
Proposals from Glades to 20 Mile Bend:
Among the options discussed: Move the transit hub to downtown Belle Glade and give it a “special, unique treatment so you do feel like you’re in a downtown of a rural town,” Josselyn said. Resurface and add lighting to State Road 80 from Hooker Highway to 20 Mile Bend.