Saturday, October 16, 2021

Hush Falls Over Brightline, Absentees Boosted Petrolia

In barely a month, Boca Raton and Delray Beach residents may not be hearing those lonesome train horns on the downtown Florida East Coast Railway corridor.

Brightline—operator of the new passenger service on the FEC—notified the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency (TPA) this week that the company expects to have almost all “supplemental safety measures” completed this month. The exceptions will be work at two crossings in Boynton Beach. TPA Executive Director Nick Uhren told me Wednesday that he hopes the work in Boynton will be done by mid-April.

Once the improvements are done at every crossing in a city, the city can file notice with the Federal Railway Administration that it is establishing a quiet zone. After 21 days, the zone takes effect. Trains still could blow horns if engineers saw a potential emergency, but they would not have to blow them routinely at every crossing.

Uhren said these “supplemental safety measures” are left-hand gates at the 35 busiest of the FEC’s 80 crossings between West Palm Beach and Boca Raton. The extra gates prevent drivers from what Uhren called the “aggressive, illegal, foolish behavior” of trying to drive around gates that have dropped to signal a train.

The TPA is paying Brightline $7.5 million for the improvements, the money coming from federal and state grants. The work always has been part of the upgrades required for the quiet zone. The extra gates were not added in response to the recent deaths from people walking or cycling through closed gates or committing suicide by standing in front of a train.

Two of those deaths, however, occurred in Boynton Beach. When the TPA was updating the federal requirements for the quiet zone, the agency asked Boynton Beach if the city wanted the extra work.

Though the quiet zone will extend from West Palm Beach through Boca Raton, cities can establish their portion individually. Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie said she doesn’t want to wait for Boynton Beach. Brightline also must install signs at crossings to warn drivers, cyclists and pedestrians that they won’t hear horns.

Establishing the quiet zone, however, won’t end cities’ involvement with Brightline. In fact, the involvement may just be starting.

Brightline still is running trains only between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. A spokeswoman said service to Miami will start “soon.” Opponents continue to fight Brightline’s plans for service to Cocoa Beach and eventually to Orlando.

In addition, only 25 trains are running. When service peaks, Brightline will operate 32 trains daily, 16 in each direction. Boca Raton will have to monitor how those additional gate closings affect downtown traffic. Delray Beach will have to decide whether to expand its barrier to discourage people from trying to cross the tracks north of Atlantic Avenue. Diners and pub-crawlers aren’t used to trains traveling nearly 80 mph and not blowing horns.

If you live in Boca Raton and Delray Beach, which have no stations, the only apparent benefit from Brightline might be the quiet zone. City officials throughout South Florida, however, hope that commuter rail service will follow on the FEC corridor. It would bring many commuters much closer to where they work.

But that’s for another day. For now, cities should establish their quiet zones as soon as possible.

Absentee ballots and the Delray mayoral race

ShellyPetrolia-2A supporter of Jim Chard, whom Shelly Petrolia defeated in the Delray Beach mayoral race, told the city commission Tuesday night that he saw some unusual numbers in the precinct-by-precinct results.

He referred to absentee ballots—that’s where Petrolia got her margin. She lost by 416 votes at the polls on Election Day, but she won the absentees—which the state now calls votes by mail—by 809. Voters cast 3,559 absentee ballots in this year’s mayoral race compared with 2,353 in the 2015 campaign for mayor. Even with more campaigns seeking the early vote, an increase of more than 50 percent in three years is significant.

The speaker also noted oddities in the results at seven precincts. Conventional wisdom is that absentee and polling-place totals would align somewhat reasonably. Candidates might get more from one source or the other, but the differences wouldn’t be dramatic.

Yet in Precinct 4096, at Carver Middle School, Petrolia got two more votes at the polls and 64 more in the absentees. Absentee turnout also was four times higher than poll turnout.

  • In Precinct 7196 (Temple Sinai), Chard beat Petrolia 89-45 at the polls, yet Petrolia won the absentees 194-46.
  • In Precinct 7202 (the 505 Club), Petrolia won the absentees 81-31 and lost at the polls 95-63.
  • In Precinct 7208 (Atlantic High School), Petrolia lost at the polls 37-19 yet won absentees 97-48.
  • In precincts at Village Academy, the Delray Beach Public Library and the city’s community center, Petrolia lost at the polls by a combined 259-129 while winning the absentees 359-143.

You can find similar imbalances toward Mitch Katz in the Seat 3 city commission race he lost to Ryan Boylston, though not to a similar degree. The numbers stick out even more when you consider that mail-in ballots made up only 40 percent of the total. I’m also told that about 450 absentee ballots arrived at the Supervisor of Elections Office on Election Day, when the previous daily total had been no more than about 20.

Some of these precincts are in areas where questions arose last year about the absentee ballot campaigns of County Commissioner Mack Bernard and State Rep. Al Jacquet. They targeted Haitian-Americans.

Mayor Cary Glickstein acknowledged the “irregularities,” though he added, “I’m not suggesting anything about these results.” A message I left for Mayor-Elect Petrolia was not returned.

And how Boca votes shook out

In contrast, precinct results in the Boca Raton City Council races revealed no major surprises.

Monica Mayotte won 33 precincts against Armand Grossman, who won just four, in the Seat D race to succeed Robert Weinroth. Jeremy Rodgers won 25 precincts against newcomer Kim Do to earn another term in Seat C. Turnout was only 14.8 percent, but Mayotte and Rodgers still get all 20 percent of the voting power in the city.

The Delray tennis contract

Also at Tuesday night’s meeting, Mayor Glickstein discussed the lawsuit against the promoter of Delray Beach’s pro tennis tournament.

Glickstein, a lawyer by training, opined that the city’s lawyers might have “erred” by seeking to invalidate the agreement with Match Point based only on contract law. Glickstein said Delray Beach might have a better case by claiming that the 25-year contract committed the city to spending money—the fee to the promoter—with no way to end the contract if the city became dissatisfied.

Such a strategy, Glickstein said, “may have produced a quick victory.” The case, which the city filed in 2016, is idling in state court. The city could seek “leave to amend” the complaint, Glickstein said, and use that new approach to “rid the city of this financial albatross.”

Boca post office packing its bags?

The U.S. Postal Service may move the downtown mail center across from Mizner Park.

Resistance will be strong, as it was when the USPS discussed closing the center nine years ago. The agency will hold a public meeting at 4:30 p.m. next Thursday in the community center west of City Hall. A letter to the city from the Postal Service said the agency will explain at that time the reasons for the possible move. No other location has been proposed.

Scott and the opioid bill

Gov. Rick Scott came to Boca Raton on Tuesday to sign this year’s opioid bill from the legislature. It’s not much, but it could help by limiting physicians in most cases to prescribing a three-day supply of painkillers.

The choice of Boca Raton was odd. The city did file the notable sober house lawsuit in the last decade, but the opioid epidemic has hit Delray Beach much harder. The city thus has been a leader on this issue. Overdoses continued their recent downward trend in January and February, dropping more than 50 percent year over year.

Scott should have made his ceremonial/political visit to Delray Beach to sign the opioid bill and congratulate the city on its progress.

Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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