This four-lane road north of downtown has become a dangerous speedway


Residents complain of speeding on West Palm Beach’s North Australian Avenue

Beatrice Marcelle, 87, was asleep shortly after 3 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 11 when a Toyota Camry fleeing police careened off North Australian Avenue in West Palm Beach and into her bedroom.

The crash left her bruised, swollen and in pain, and her home uninhabitable, a gaping hole in its brick facade.

It left neighbors shaken, as well, at their continued vulnerability after years of complaints the four-lane artery north of downtown has become a speedway. Police say they’re increasing nighttime motorcycle patrols but with each car that flies into a utility pole or house, with each hint about street redesign that goes unfulfilled, neighborhood leaders say they’re not reassured.

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A Palm Beach County consultant completed a safety study Monday and recommended expanding turn lanes and some intersections but that work isn’t scheduled to start until 2024. Australian Avenue is considered a minor arterial roadway so it falls under county jurisdiction.

The city handles enforcement on the avenue, which features schools, senior apartments and houses. At Mayor Jeri Muoio’s regular City Hall meeting with North End residents Wednesday, Lt. Roy Bevell told city commissioners and neighborhood leaders police motorcycle units are stepping up patrols on Friday nights, particularly between 8 and 11 p.m., when much of the speeding occurs.

He noted that in March through May, the average speed on that 35-mile-per-hour stretch of Australian was 40 mph, though some cars topped 70.

Police issued 55 citations during that period, 10 of them for speeding, he said. Last year police issued 1,134 citations on Australian.

There have been four fatalities on Australian in the past five years, all of them at 25th Street, Bevell said.

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Police will also continue to bring in “speed monitoring awareness radar trailers,” or SMART signs, to let people know how fast they’re going, compared to the speed limit. He acknowledged the honor system doesn’t work, though, and said he spoke to some in the city Engineering Department about the possibility of putting in speed tables and making other physical design changes to slow motorists.

Jacquie Smith, president of the Westfield Neighborhood Association, was skeptical.

“Do you have any idea who’s going to do that and when it’s going to happen?” she asked.

“No,” Bevell replied. “These are suggestions and I believe Australian is a county road so I know there has to be some working together to get actual things like that.”

“We’ve heard the same thing and tried to trace that down,” Smith replied. “It doesn’t seem to be an actual thing that’s going to happen.”

Something is scheduled to happen. But it won’t likely be enough or soon enough to assuage residents.

A county safety study recommended extending turn lanes, widening sidewalks, adding raised curbs, narrowing travel lanes and more clearly identifying crosswalks by using pavers and flashing lights.

The sidewalks should be widened from 5 to as much as 12 feet, to be shared by bikes and pedestrians, the study recommended. Widening the street to create a bike lane would only encourage more speeding, so the travel lane widths should instead be reduced from 12 feet to 11, it said.

But there’ll no speed humps, speed tables, roundabouts, “road diets” or reduced speed limit, said Motasem Al-Turk, director of the county Traffic Engineering Division. It’s too busy a road for that, he said.

A traffic count at 36th Street, near Marcelle’s house, showed 27,600 cars drive on Australian every day. For a road diet, for the road to be reduced from four lanes to three to slow it down, for example, the traffic count would have to be less than 15,000, Al-Turk said. And because it’s a thoroughfare, it doesn’t qualify for speed tables or other traffic-calming techniques, he said.

It would be great to lower the speed limit to 30 or less, “but that’s not realistic or practical,” he said. “You can’t lower the speed limit by simply putting a smaller number and expect or believe people would simply drive at lower speeds.”

For Debbie Finnie, a board member of the North Shore Neighborhood Association, the key is policing. She assembled a list of serious recent accidents on Australian, as a way to encourage police to take resident complaints seriously. There was “car vs. tree” at 3208 N. Australian on April 20, “car vs. concrete pole” at 2725 N. Australian on June 5, “car vs. concrete wall” at 2100 N. Australian on June 10, and several more.

She compared the avenue to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but said the speedway is safer because it has 40-foot fences. “The neighborhood’s immediate needs are effective traffic enforcement,” she said.

West Palm recently launched an initiative to slow drivers down citywide and hired a coordinator to implement it. Called Vision Zero, it’s a project originated in Sweden and now in 34 U.S. cities, whose goal is to eliminate traffic fatalities through better road engineering, enforcement and citizen education.

But don’t expect Beatrice Marcelle to rest more easily.

She’s not living on Australian for now because her house is broken. Police estimated the damage at $10,000 and said the city is steering her through the insurance process.

Lee McGraw, 28, was arrested shortly after he left his car and fled through the neighborhood. He was charged with driving under the influence, driving while his license was suspended, fleeing an officer after a crash involving property damage or injury and resisting arrest with violence. “Driver advised he knows he drank too much,” the police report said.

Follow Staff Writer Tony Doris on Twitter at @TonyDorisPBP

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