Of the millions of people who drive cars, trucks and motorcycles every day on Palm Beach County roads, from residents commuting to work to visitors heading to the beach, chances are very few have ever heard of George T. Webb.
But their driving experiences — for better or worse — are the result of growth-control policies that Webb helped shape and translate to pavement over the past three decades as Palm Beach County engineer.
Webb might have forged a reputation as a “car-centric” guy responsible for paving miles of roads, but he also was viewed as an unlikely hero by people who didn’t want to see the county get ruined by development. When he retires Aug. 31, he’ll leave a legacy as a local kid who tried to save the county he calls home from the same kinds of congestion and gridlock choking other parts of South Florida.
“That’s been a real emphasis by the board (of county commissioners), and me personally, to try to get people around here as efficiently as possible,” said Webb, who turns 64 on Aug. 23, two days before friends and colleagues gather at the Breakers West Country Club for his retirement party.
“They said, ‘We don’t want to grow up to be like Dade and Broward (counties). We’re different. We don’t want to be choked with traffic like they have been.”’
He oversaw plenty of non-transportation projects, too, in his 26 years as county engineer, including the completion in 1995 of the county’s $180 million late-and-over-budget courthouse. But his main charge was a basic one — keep the traffic flowing, a task made all the more challenging by development pressures that nearly doubled the county’s population from 871,500 when he took the job in 1991.
He’d like to think he and his co-workers succeeded — even if some rush-hour commuters might think otherwise. Their main tool was a system called “concurrency,” which for about 20 years gave the county the authority to reject development proposals until an enlarged road was in place to accommodate the expected increase in traffic — a road for which the developer would pay.
The rule gave Webb and his department enormous power over how the county grew, often times usurping recommendations from other county departments and coming at great expense to angry developers.
He also ran into criticism from neighbors and growth opponents who believed developers could get whatever they wanted simply by paying a few bucks to expand nearby roads, roads that that would help them attract home buyers.
Webb never became bridled by the critics.
“It has been, I think, a great success and I’ll put us up against any county around the country in absorbing that many people in that period of time and not choking on their own traffic,” said Webb, who said the county spent nearly $1.5 billion on roads on his watch.
“There might be spot congestion at certain locations, but for the most part our roads move traffic in this county.”
But he also knows the road system is on the verge of cracking, in large part because of pro-development laws passed by the Legislature during the recession that have weakened the local policies that Webb since 1984 had helped write.
On the horizon are thousands of new homes in massive developments in the county’s undeveloped central-western area, like Westlake and Avenir. The result will be more traffic, some of it on unimproved roads, ultimately leading to undesirable driving experiences for many local motorists.
“It is totally in jeopardy,” said Webb, who finds it appropriate today to repeat a phrase used decades ago by traffic engineers just before the county adopted its tough growth-management mandate: “The traffic is coming, the traffic is coming.”
Webb never loses sight of those early days, which shaped his thinking as head engineer of Florida’s largest county in land size (2,034 square miles). They’re always right in front of him in his office, on the surface of a long utility table that’s used as a gathering place for snack items, a microwave oven, coffee creamer and stacks of plastic cups.
The table’s surface is protected by a sheet of hard plastic, sort of a transparent table cloth, beneath which are yellowed newspaper clippings from the 1980s describing the development toll being waged on the county at the time: “Decade of neglect takes its toll” says a headline under the microwave. Beneath the plastic ware, “Road engineers can’t keep pace with demands” and “Citizens block highway project.”
“It’s a constant reminder of what we are here for, trying to keep the quality of life,” Webb said the other day as he stood over the tabletop scrapbook. “I just look at it and say, ‘Yep, that’s why we’re here.”’
‘Are you Skeeter?’
One day last year, Webb was driving past his old house on North Federal Highway in Lake Worth when he saw a woman in the front yard. When he stopped to explain that he grew up in the small house, she looked him in the eyes and asked, “Are you Skeeter?”
Momentarily confused, Webb followed the woman into the backyard where she pointed at a long-forgotten etching, perhaps written by his dad, beneath an aging concrete table: “Skeeter Webb, Dec. 6, 1957.” He was 4 at the time.
For about the first 10 years of his life, Webb was known by a nickname coined by his father, Billy Webb, who helped build bridges around the state for Cleary Brothers Construction.
Billy Webb also worked in the bridge section of the county engineering department, where his father and uncle had once worked. It wasn’t long before George Webb, who occasionally tagged along with his dad to construction sites, set his sights on becoming the fourth Webb and the family’s third generation to work in the same department.
After graduating from Lake Worth High School in 1971, Webb got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Florida. He worked as an intern for the County Engineering Department when the offices were in a barracks building next to the airport.
He was hired to his first job in late 1976 by West Palm Beach’s traffic engineer, Ron Schutta, who would go on to be city manager. In early 1979, Webb left to become traffic engineer of Greenville, S.C.
He returned to Florida in 1981 as assistant traffic engineer for Palm Beach County, but left the job in 1983 to work for Kimley-Horn & Associates. There he met June Upchurch, who worked for the company in marketing. They would marry and have a son, Jordan, now 28.
But after 11 months, Webb returned to the county, taking a pay cut in exchange for better management opportunities.
“It ultimately cost him money, but he really felt drawn to serve the public need rather than the developers’ desires,” Upchurch said. “He doesn’t have much of an ego.”
Webb rose to assistant engineer and then deputy, as his department was drafting and applying traffic-based growth limits requiring that adequate roads be in place before development could proceed. The ad-hoc system, imposed on developers to keep up with the county’s prolific growth, became enshrined in law after voters approved those rules in 1987 for unincorporated areas and in 1988 countywide.
‘He’s like Spock’
Webb had a talent for clearly explaining technical and often theoretical terms like “concurrency” and “traffic performance standards” so that elected leaders and the public could understand them.
“He’s like Spock. He’s very analytical,” said Haney Frakes, a retired assistant county engineer who worked with Webb and attended college engineering classes with him at UF. “He had an easy demeanor when talking to county commissioners. He made it relatable.”
To explain traffic congestion, Webb and his boss in the traffic division, Charlie Walker, brought a tray with an empty pitcher and several glasses of water to County Commission meetings. The empty pitcher represented the road system. Each glass poured into the pitcher represented traffic from a new development. Eventually the pitcher overflowed.
“He could articulate it in a way others couldn’t,” said Karen Marcus, who led the county’s growth-management charge as a commissioner from 1984 to 2012. “He helped guide us to accomplish that with necessary tools.”
Former County Administrator Bob Weisman said Webb was always careful to caution commissioners about the effects of poor traffic planning and too much development.
“George was right on top of that in warning people that when you allow unbridled development in areas, there will be a payback at some point in time, and that’s the traffic,” said Weisman, an engineer who retired two years ago after 24 years as county administrator in a career that nearly paralleled Webb’s.
“He’s the one who defended the levels we had and said we don’t want to get worse than that. The commissioners listened to him a lot of the time. I think it’s a little more that George tried to assure that future traffic levels in the county would be tolerable. He succeeded to a great extent.”
Webb said credit goes to his predecessors in the 1970s, including Walker and County Engineer Herb Kahlert, for persuading the County Commission to adopt a vision for a countywide road network. Known as a “long-range thoroughfare plan,” it sketched across vast swaths of farmland a map of future roads, such as Lyons Road running the length of the county and Jog Road crossing wetlands to connect north county with south.
When developers came in with plans for homes and shopping centers, the county could tell them they would not get zoning permission unless they gave up right-of-way and helped pay for future roads — each link a piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the county road network.
“It was extremely valuable when it came time for those farms to start growing houses,” Webb said.
Shrugs off politics
That long-range thoroughfare plan would also play a dubious role in Webb’s final rise from deputy to head county engineer. In November 1991, he replaced Herb Kahlert, his longtime mentor who resigned under pressure eight months earlier over questions about hundreds of acres of property his family had accumulated in the future path of roads.
The state Ethics Commission cleared Kahlert of wrongdoing in July 1991. Webb still thinks his old boss was the victim of a political “attack” led by Commissioner Mary McCarty, who also cast the lone vote against promoting Webb to replace Kahlert.
Webb worked with McCarty for more than 15 years until she and two other commissioners resigned and went to prison in the “Corruption County” scandals. Webb said he wouldn’t be surprised if the wide-ranging probe at some point had targeted him, Weisman and other top county officials.
“Who are the top two people dealing with growth and development in the county? If I was the FBI, I would certainly think that was a logical thing to do to at least start asking questions,” he said. “I certainly got interviewed.”
Webb said he learned to shrug off politics and focus on his job. That approach came in handy when his department pushed for politically thorny projects such as the extension of State Road 7, which has been bitterly opposed by West Palm Beach because it would run along the western edge of Grassy Waters Preserve and the Ibis Country Club community.
“We disagree with him on the extension of State Road 7, but overall I think he has done a tremendous job given the constraints of overdevelopment in Palm Beach County,” said Drew Martin of the Sierra Club. “Fifty years ago, they didn’t expect anybody to be living west of 95, and the roads were never designed for that, so the fact we have any traffic flow at all is testament to his ability to make the traffic move.”
Some critics say Webb used his expertise to exploit policy ambiguities, often at great expense to developers who challenged county traffic standards.
But others say his motivations were pure.
“George definitely had the taxpayers of Palm Beach County at heart through the development process, and he certainly frustrated many developers along the way,” said Ken Tuma, a land planner who has helped usher developers’ projects through county red tape for more than 20 years.
Webb’s approach also frustrated opponents of growth, who charged that only developers with expensive traffic consultants could figure out Webb’s complicated formulas — paving the way for development despite bitter neighborhood opposition.
As for special allotments for buses or trains, forget it. Webb didn’t see South Floridians giving up their cars.
Webb is the first to admit that he is “totally car-centric,” as opponents have charged. He admits the county could have done a better job of accommodating bicyclists and walkers.
“It would’ve been really nice to have a greenway or pathway system alongside all these canals so people can bike and walk separate from having to be next to cars going 45, 50 miles an hour on our roads,” he said. “When I look back, I wonder how we could have done that a little differently to set that system up.”
A bridge in his name
The County Commission plans to recognize their retiring engineer and bestow a special honor: The Sixth Avenue South Bridge over Lake Osborne — a hometown bridge his father helped build in the 1970s — will be renamed the George Webb Bridge.
Webb isn’t one to seek attention or accolades, although he still has the trophy from the batting championship he won as a 12-year-old in the Lake Worth Youth Baseball League in 1966. The shiny trophy has sat for a few years on a shelf in Webb’s office on the 11th floor of the Governmental Center, amid the organized chaos of maps, folders and career mementos like commendation plaques and metal road signs.
Neatly lined along one wall are portraits of six county engineers, from Webb all the way back to J.M. Boyd, who held the job from 1926 until 1953, the year Webb was born.
A month ago, a FedEx delivery man walked into Webb’s office and dropped off cardboard boxes containing the belongings of the next Palm Beach county engineer. He’s David Ricks, a Navy veteran who most recently was public works director for Norfolk, Va., and before that the director of facilities and transportation services for Fulton County, Ga.
Ricks, 58, has already captured the imaginations of his new co-workers in the upper floors of the Governmental Center. They’ve been watching YouTube videos of “Superman Dave Ricks” squatting with 700-pound barbells on his shoulders at powerlifting competitions.
Webb prefers less strenuous activities when he’s away from the office. He rides the lawn mower, reads the newspaper cover to cover and goes for walks around the neighborhood with June and their two dogs, Bella and Pepper.
As for his immediate future, it will include traveling with his wife and spending time in North Carolina with their son and his family.
The retiring traffic engineer also predicts a not-so-distant future with driverless cars, insight he has gleaned from his participation over the past 10 years in the Federal Highway Administration’s Connected Vehicle program.
“This is where it’s going to get fun,” Webb said with a laugh. “We will have by 2025 or 2030 automatic driverless vehicles. Transportation is going to change in next 15 years, but for the life of me I am not sure in what direction.”