I-95 Blues, Another Midtown Lawsuit for Boca Raton

Construction on I-95 (Courtesy of FDOT)

Road closures. Construction. What’s it all about?

Making you pay to drive on Interstate 95.

Cranes loom over portions of the highway in Boca Raton. Heavy machines shore up the overpasses. For those who wish that they could live in Palm Beach County and escape Broward and Miami-Dade—sorry. What began in Miami-Dade is coming and after the state brings it to Boca Raton, Delray Beach is next.

It’s all part of the project to widen I-95 to 10 lanes and build two “express lanes” in each direction. The Florida Department of Transportation chose “express” rather than “toll” to placate regular commuters who might object to paying for what the state bills as faster travel for a price during “peak periods”—rush hour.

FDOT began this campaign years ago, claiming that states were running out of money for highway improvements. Congress hasn’t raised the gas tax in a quarter-century and never indexed it for inflation. Fuel efficiency has decreased the amount of gasoline drivers use, further cutting revenue.

Florida has responded with the express/toll lanes. The first stretch ran seven miles from the Golden Glades interchange north of Miami to nearly the end of I-95. Since then, the push north has been inexorable.

The most recent stretch linked Hollywood Boulevard and Broward Boulevard, just south of where drivers leave I-95 for Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. It cost almost $500 million.

Next will come the section to Commercial Boulevard, at a cost of $149 million. Work will be complete in the fall of 2020. As with all the construction to the south, three lanes in each direction will be toll-free with drivers in the two left lanes paying for the privilege of driving on roads their gas taxes already have financed.

From there, the work extends to Southwest 10th Street in Deerfield Beach. That segment should open this summer. After that, it’s on to Glades Road, with completion scheduled for the spring of 2022. That will be Express Phase 3B-1. Express Phase 3B-2 will run to Linton Boulevard by early 2024.

No current plans call for extending the express lanes farther north. From there, the left lane will remain only for carpoolers and low-emission vehicles during rush hour.

Similar work will expand the Florida Turnpike, which already charges tolls. The segment from Glades Road to Atlantic Avenue will widen to 10 lanes.

Like Uber’s “surge pricing,” express lane tolls rise with demand. Northbound drivers were paying as much as $10.50 for the seven-mile stretch in Miami-Dade during the evening rush hour. The general lanes remain free, but non-payers are squeezed into those three lanes on the right.

To hear the state tell it, all the expense—with drivers double-paying—will smooth out traffic. Those who want a faster trip during rush hour will pay for it, thus taking cars off the other three lanes. Everybody benefits.

According to news reports, driver reaction has been mixed. In 2015, complaints that speeds in toll lanes actually were slower than the free lanes caused the state to raise tolls. For 2017, the state reported that express lane speeds during rush hour were between 5 and 20 miles per hour faster.

Whatever benefits the express lane program brings, it causes hassles, too. Former Delray Beach City Commissioner Jim Chard points out that drivers of electric and hybrid cars must deal with three agencies to drive on the turnpike and I-95 express lanes—they’re exempt from tolls—and the carpool lane on I-95.

Whatever the gripes may be, however, resistance is futile. Paying to drive on Interstate 95 is another consequence of South Florida’s growth.

Second Midtown lawsuit

I have written a lot about the lawsuit against Boca Raton by Midtown landowner Crocker Partners. But there’s a second Midtown lawsuit.

Nader Salour owns Strikes, the bowling center, and the building that once housed Nipper’s bar. He wants to put a mixed-use project on the properties, which are just west of Boca Center. The project would include residential development, which rules forbid. The city has delayed writing new rules that might allow housing.

In his lawsuit, filed last October, Salour claims that he filed a site plan application in 2015 but the city is “stonewalling” its review. Salour asked a judge to order the city to process the application.

In January, Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Gillen denied Salour’s petition for a writ of mandamus. Gillen said the city acted within its discretion.

Gillen, though, wrote that he is “not insensitive” to Salour’s complaint that he can’t obtain even a hearing before the planning and zoning board to present his plan. Gillen also refused to dismiss Salour’s complaint outright, saying he was “leaving more options open to Plaintiff.”

For now, Salour’s option is to appeal. Briefs have been filed with the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach. Oral arguments have not been scheduled.

Beaches tax district meeting not until late April or May

The much-anticipated meeting between the Boca Raton City Council and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District will happen on April 22 or May 13, according to a city spokeswoman.

The two sides are “working on schedules.” At that meeting, council members want to hear how much the district wants from the city for construction of Boca National Golf Course. There also will be discussion of the proposal from Compson Associates for a Ritz-Carlton hotel and residences on the Ocean Strand property.

Truth stranger than fiction

Lawyers say that with juries, you never know. The latest example is James Scandirito, Jr.

Last week, a Palm Beach County jury found Scandirito guilty of dismembering the body of his father, James Scandirito, Sr., but they acquitted him on the charge of first-degree murder. Jurors bought the son’s argument that he panicked upon finding his father dead last March 28 after the two had been drinking and taking drugs at the father’s home in the north end of Boca Raton.

The son never called 911 to determine if his father actually had died. As the probable cause affidavit from the Boca Raton Police Department said, the son lied to investigators about trips he had made to Home Depot to buy a hand truck, garbage bags, cleaning supplies and duck tape. Scandirito Jr. lied about all his activities when detectives questioned him on April 3.

Based on evidence obtained after investigators search the father’s house, police began surveillance of the son. They saw James Scandirito, Jr. dispose of his father’s body parts near the former Boca Teeca golf course. Investigators never found the father’s head.

Meanwhile, the son had nearly drained a bank account, replaced his license plate with a stolen one, and fled to North Florida, where he was arrested on April 9. He had a Brazilian passport and an itinerary for the Dominican Republic. Prosecutors said he had researched online which countries don’t have extradition treaties with the United States.

Using forged documents, the probable cause affidavit states, the son had tried to remove nearly $10,000 from one of his father’s accounts. The grand jury indictment charges James Scandirito with killing his father using “unspecified means.” Prosecutors said the motive was money. James Scandirito Sr., who had been a judge in Michigan, was worth about $800,000.

A retired medical examiner testified that heart problems didn’t kill James Scandirito Sr. The son, however, claimed that he panicked upon supposedly finding his father dead, believing that he would be blamed because of the drugs and alcohol. He thus responded by hacking up his father.

That defense worked. His lawyers said of the son, “He made some very poor choices in this case. Horrific choices, grisly choices, that he regrets,” Ramsey said. “Those poor decisions do not mean murder.”

The jury agreed. You never know.

According to county court records, the estate of James Scandirito Sr., which includes the house, is in probate.

Corey Jones Act

(Photo by Rawpixel)

A local tragedy can motivate politicians to propose something, anything, even if it’s only symbolic.

The murder of Corey Jones is one such tragedy. We can call it murder after the conviction of former Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja in the October 2015 shooting of the former Delray Beach Housing Authority employee.

U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, has introduced the Corey Jones Act. It would prohibit the award of federal police grants to departments whose policies allow plainclothes officers using unmarked vehicles to make traffic stops. Raja was working plainclothes and driving an unmarked van when he approached Jones’ vehicle.

Though Raja claimed that Jones pointed a gun at him, prosecutors successfully argued that Raja provoked the confrontation and then panicked. Raja has asked for a new trial, claiming faulty jury instructions.

Hastings’ legislation likely won’t become law, even if it passes the House. There’s no indication of similar confrontations. But it’s almost certainly true that if Raja just had called for backup from a uniformed officer, Jones would be alive and Raja would not be facing life in prison.

More local FDOT pushback?  

(Courtesy Florida Department of Transportation)

I wrote last week about the unhappiness in Delray Beach over the state’s plan for the new interchange at Interstate 95 and Atlantic Avenue.

In that post, I quoted City Commissioner Bill Bathurst, who had tried to mediate discussions between the Florida Department of Transportation and city officials. Bathurst had attended last week’s meeting of the Palm Beach Transportation Agency. The TPA, whose board includes city and county officials, determines how to spend federal and state grants of the type that are financing the new interchange in Delray Beach.

Based on comments at the meeting, Bathurst said, “Delray is not alone in showing some dissatisfaction of how FDOT engineering design does not take some local needs into account when designing some projects.”

The city had wanted the project to be more amenable to walking and biking as officials try to link developing areas west of I-95 with those on the established east side. Perhaps more pushback will make the state more flexible.

CORRECTION

I wrote that Bathurst is a board member of Human Powered Delray, which had sought changes to the interchange design. As Bathurst reminded me—and as I should have known—he resigned from all city and civic boards upon joining the commission last year.

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