The city has adopted an outline for a transportation future that puts trolley and bus riders, bicyclists and walkers on a more even footing with cars.
In unanimously approving the mobility plan Monday night, the City Commission overstepped criticism the consultant-driven plan was an unrealistic and expensive road map for congestion.
The mayor of Palm Beach, Gail Coniglio, joined those urging against provisions that call for dedicated bus or bike lanes, saying they would cause gridlock on Okeechobee Boulevard, the corridor town residents rely upon to enter and exit the island and to evacuate during hurricanes.
But West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio and all five city commissioners said the city needed to lay groundwork for an integrated system of bike lanes, busways, train stations, trolley routes, sidewalks and roads, to provide options for residents of all ages to get in and around the fast-developing city. They sought to counter concerns the plan would set in motion any specific projects, or revive the controversial Flagler Shore pilot project that earlier this year took two of four Flagler Drive lanes on the waterfront out of use by cars to open the street for those on foot or bike.
Although the Flagler Shore idea was included in a list of potential projects within the plan, Muoio ordered it removed shortly before the meeting.
“The Downtown Mobility Study was far more important than any single project, and the mayor wanted the study to remain the focus of last night’s discussion,” spokeswoman Kathleen Walter said Tuesday, adding that the mayor has no plans to revive Flagler Shore. “Not at this time. It’s not one of the mayor’s priorities and no funding has been designated for it.”
How to shift people to alternative transportation?
The city administration considers the downtown not overly congested, but with more than $2 billion worth of development projects in the pipeline, sees a need to give people alternatives to driving.
They also describe the mobility plan as a prerequisite for charging developers a mobility fee, which the city hopes to enact to pay for trolley service and other transit improvements downtown. Those fees would take the place of impact fees that the city now collects but must hand off to the county for spending on projects outside the downtown.
The mobility study estimated that the city street network is at 77 percent capacity during peak periods and will rise to 91 percent by 2040. The plan’s goal is a 14 percent shift from people driving to using other modes of transportation by 2040, or 3 percent a year.
It calls for streets shaded by trees by day, well-illuminated at night, wider sidewalks that are more pleasant to navigate, bike lanes for more stress-free and less accident-prone bicycling, more trolley routes and a transit hub to coordinate different modes of transit, at the tent site, a vacant, city-owned site at Okeechobee Boulevard and Dixie Highway. Commuter park-and-ride lots with transit links to downtown are envisioned for the Palm Beach Outlets mall and an undetermined site on Okeechobee just west of I-95.
In the past year, the city already has begun implementing some changes that fit the mobility plan guidelines. Clematis Street is in the process of a makeover; bright green bike lanes are being painted around the city; and other projects are in design for Quadrille Boulevard, while way-finding signs are springing up as travel aids for visitors.
The plan, if all the projects it lists were implemented, would cost $358 million over 22 years for capital costs and operations, it estimates.
Plenty of opposition: ‘Are they inept?’
Monday’s meeting promised confrontation, as opponents, including a group called Fix Flagler, had urged residents of Palm Beach and West Palm to reject the plan. The City Hall auditorium was standing room only.
“We don’t want jack-hammering of two lanes at Flagler Drive,” Fix Flagler co-founder Bob Garvy told the City Commission, talking over Muoio’s attempts to tell him the Flagler Shore project was no longer included in the plan. “We were told Flagler Shore was not going to be pursued, yet elements of it showed up on the plan,” he bellowed. “What’s going on here? Does the administration think we’re stupid? Are they inept?”
Garvy, chairman emeritus of West Palm’s Intech, a $50 billion asset management firm, called the plan “a lovefest between the administration and consultants,” and “a $350 million gross overreach.” Lane-narrowing strategies like those envisioned to slow traffic had created problems in Washington, D.C., Seattle and elsewhere, he said.
Coniglio, taking a more conciliatory tone, nonetheless said the plan’s impact would be “devastating.”
The town feared the combination of development, lane reductions and bike or bus lanes would gridlock east-west traffic on Okeechobee and the Royal Park Bridge, impeding emergency vehicles and hurricane evacuations.
“We are concerned that the safety of our residents, employees and visitors will be impaired as they attempt to travel the much more congested and dangerous driving condition if roadway capacity is reduced as a result of this mobility plan,” she said. “I hope that we can continue to work together and find viable options.”
While she and Garvy drew applause from many in the auditorium, the plan garnered support from West Palm residents, neighborhood association leaders and the executive director of the county Transportation Planning Administration, Nick Uhren. “We love what you’re trying to accomplish,” Uhren told the commission.
While some had criticized the plan’s focus on bicycles as unrealistic, resident Jim Kovalsky countered that the plan didn’t have a bias toward bicycles.
“This is more about correcting a historical bias toward cars,” he said. If the city fails to provide for alternative ways to get around town, it will become Miami or Fort Lauderdale, he added. “Just look south of us. We don’t want that.”
Narrowing travel lanes in some instances might be the right answer, another man commented, adding that Delray Beach had made U.S. 1 more livable and helped businesses by doing that.
“We’re not looking to take people’s cars away,” said Downtown Neighborhood Association President Michael Cuevas. “We are looking to increase capacity for other modes of transit, so that people who do want to walk or ride bikes have options.”
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