More details unveiled for State Road 7’s Okeechobee-Northlake link

Updated Nov 05, 2017
Opponents say the State Road 7 extension would put contaminated runoff in the Grassy Waters Preserve, but state says environmental concerns have been addressed.

The slow and sometimes torturous bureaucratic trek to link Okeechobee and Northlake boulevards is on schedule for completion in two years, the city’s lawsuit against it notwithstanding, officials said last week.

Meanwhile another project, redesigning 45th Street at its Interstate 95 interchange, also is gaining steam.

At a State Road 7 panel discussion hosted by state Rep. Matt Willhite and Palm Beach County Vice Mayor Melissa McKinlay Wednesday evening, officials said money has been budgeted to complete the 4-mile extension in one fell swoop, starting in July.

The project will take two years.

“We’re ready to go,” said Gerry O’Reilly, District Four Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation said.

O’Reilly and other county and state officials said environmental concerns of West Palm Beach and others have been addressed by aligning the road as far west of the edge of Grassy Waters Preserve as possible, and by directing storm water runoff through a series of channels and drainage areas.

There’ll be roundabouts to slow traffic, with lighting, as well as guardrails on the east side, along with fencing to block animals near the preserve. One property in the Ibis development might get a noise wall.

Each side of the four-lane divided roadway will have sidewalks and six-foot-wide protected bicycle lanes.

West Palm Beach has mounted a persistent, multimillion-dollar legal campaign in recent years to block the road, largely out of concern for the preserve, an Everglades remnant that provides most of the city’s drinking water. That opposition continues.

City Commissioner Keith James told the panelists that he will continue to support the city’s fight against it. Commissioner Shanon Materio, who has opposed the project as well, said it made sense nonetheless to work on additional ways to mitigate its impact in the event it moves ahead.

The issue has interjected itself into the city’s 2019 mayoral campaign, as candidate James engineered potential opponent Materio’s ouster as a city representative to the Metropolitan Planning Organization in July, for voting for an overall MPO budget that included the State Road 7 project.

MPO Executive Director Nick Uhren noted that planning for the project began as far back as 1948, when the state dedicated land for a future extension. The need for the road was first identified in a transportation study in 1969 and construction money first showed up in five-year transportation plans in 2009.

Uhren said for years he has gone to the northern terminus of State Road 7 at 60th Street North, “and looked longingly and wondered when it would be finished.”

County fire and Sheriff’s Office officials said the road link will ease access to the area during emergencies. McKinley said it would reduce traffic on surrounding roads in the western communities by thousands of vehicles a day and speed hurricane evacuations.

The mayors of Wellington and Royal Palm Beach expressed support for the project. “This is an important project to our community even though it’s been controversial over the years,” Wellington Mayor Anne Gerwig said.

The cost of the overall project, including portions completed in recent years near Okeechobee and Northlake, is estimated at $60 million.

The Florida Department of Transportation held an open house Thursday evening to provide an update and receive input from the public on plans for easing traffic on 45th Street, a six-lane roadway that passes under the 10-lane Interstate.

That $14 million project involves realigning lanes in an innovative way as they go under the Interstate, to ease wait times at lights near the off-ramps.

The “Diverging Diamond Interchange configuration” provides three continuous lanes through the interchange, with two free-flow left-turn lanes onto the I-95 ramps. Cars coming off I-95 northbound and turning west onto 45th will stay on the south side of 45th at first, avoiding having to cross all six lanes of traffic to make the turn and speeding up the flow of traffic.

The plans also call for one bike lane in each direction, extended on-ramps and new overhead signs.