Ideas are all over the road on how to solve West Palm’s traffic trouble

It was not a good week for West Palm Beach commuters.

Early in the week, cars pouring in from the south faced four blockages on South Flagler Drive alone: a detour at the Bristol condo construction site near Okeechobee Boulevard; one at Southern Boulevard, where preliminary work has begun to replace the Southern Boulevard Bridge; and two between, where an unusually high tide washed up through storm drains and flooded the road.

Several blocks to the west, roadwork on Parker Avenue also pushed commuters onto South Dixie Highway and Olive Avenue, jamming approaches to the city from the south. From the north, detours around the Flagler Memorial Bridge reconstruction messed with commuters. Meanwhile the Okeechobee exit off southbound I-95 into downtown backed up far into the interstate for much of rush hour, for no apparent reason.

No choice but to be patient for a few days, Assistant City Manager Scott Kelly said.

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Now we’re back to just our normal level of miserable, with residents howling about traffic at public meetings as a city administration that, on the one hand presses for a walkable, livable downtown, at the same time presses to allow 30-story office towers in a 5-story zone along the waterfront, to attract corporate employers.

That plan got a “no” from the Downtown Action Committee, but a 5-tower, 300-condo project between single-family neighborhoods on South Dixie got a preliminary green light from the city’s Planning Board, even though the city has been working to narrow that section of road to slow it down and make it more livable. The city commission will have the final vote on both projects.

Kelly said he doesn’t foresee a quick fix to downtown traffic woes but that he’s “not pessimistic.”

“We have a great trolley system that could be expanded, multiple rail options. It’s not horrible. It’ just a couple of corridors where it’s really gotten bad. Are there ways where we can be smart and figure that out? The world’s going to change so we need to change also.”

For the short-term, the city is negotiating with a consultant to do what’s called a “mobility study” of the city’s road network, with an eye for options that would make the streets safer for pedestrians and the road grid more efficient and bearable.

That study could take more than a year but Kelly said he is having the consultant fast-track the section dealing with the Okeechobee corridor, where the combination of hotel, convention, CityPlace and office traffic vexes motorists and pedestrians alike. That section of the report won’t be ready until spring, however.

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The mayor has nixed the option of a pedestrian overpass between the convention center and CityPlace but “everything is on the table,” Kelly said. “We don’t have any preconceived notions.”

He said he wants to look at how other cities around the country are addressing the problem, get input from businesses and residents, and look at the latest technology that might be applied.

One positive side from the city’s viewpoint is that the Millennial generation is open to less reliance on cars and more receptive to bike networks and other alternatives. Other options may include adjusting signal timing, making Palm Tran buses a more pleasant choice, or adding high-speed bus lanes.

The potential impact of self-driving vehicles, just a few years down the road, presents another variable that West Palm Beach officials haven’t begun to analyze.

The city likely will address sooner the relationship between tides and traffic.

With the rise of sea levels, sections of South Beach, Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale already swamp frequently. The king tides that covered South Flagler Drive sections over the past week gave West Palm Beach a salty taste of its future.

Already West Palm is planning to add tide gates to some storm water outfalls to keep the sea out. That should help South Flagler, except when it doesn’t. In the case of high rains, the gates could cause flooding by preventing storm water from draining out.

Geoffrey Sluggett, a government relations lobbyist, has begun discussions with various officials about recessing part of the Okeechobee gateway into downtown, creating acres of parkland or plaza above the boulevard, as “a great open space that pulls the whole area together,” with such features as concerts, art shows, and bicycle and pedestrian paths.

Sluggett, who has represented the Marriott hotel and Clearlake Business District, conceded such a project would be expensive and could take a decade to accomplish.

Mayor Jeri Muoio noted in her last State of the City Address that the city has $2.5 billion of real estate projects in the pipeline, Sluggett recalled. All those new office and condo towers will generate traffic, he said. “We have to start these discussions now because you’re not going to fix this overnight,” he said.

“It would be great if we could do something like that,” Kelly allowed. “But the cost assessment for that is so extravagant that it’s not something you would see feasible in the near future.”

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