Thursday, April 18, 2024

Those lonesome I-95 traffic blues

Highway blues—and dues

Driving on Interstate 95, you can’t miss the work on the Spanish River Boulevard interchange, which is supposed to be finished in May 2017. It’s a big project, but it’s only part of the transformation that is about to take place on I-95 and the Florida Turnpike.

Nick Uhren is executive director of the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Agency (MPO), which sets transportation priorities for the county—from highways to bike lanes. Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie chairs the 19-member MPO board that chooses those priorities. County Commissioner Steven Abrams, who represents Boca Raton and Delray Beach, is a board member.

In an interview, Uhren told me that over the next five years, $1.5 billion will be spent just on improvements to I-95 and the Turnpike that are underway. He calls the figure “staggering.” Consider that the Spanish River interchange will cost $85 million, including construction, and you can understand what Uhren means.

The interchange is designed to provide a northern entrance to Florida Atlantic University; it will take drivers to FAU Boulevard. Everyone also expects, however, that the project will bring relief to the south—at the intersection of Glades and Airport roads, which is the most congested intersection in the county.

But no one is sure just how much relief will come. Uhren offers a comparison with another Palm Beach County project—the extension of State Road 7 from Persimmon Boulevard to 60th Street. Until the extension, many residents of the unincorporated Acreage could leave their community only by driving through Royal Palm Beach. When it opened, Uhren said, “Royal Palm Beach lost 10,000 cars a day. We won’t see anything like that on Glades Road, but I don’t see how (the Spanish River interchange) could not produce some degree of relief.”

I-95 in southern Palm Beach County will be changing in another big way. The stretch from central Broward County to Linton Boulevard is the third phase of the Florida Department of Transportation’s program to install toll lanes on what for decades has been free-travel I-95. Once the interstate is widened to 10 lanes between the Broward line and Linton, Uhren said, the two left lanes will be toll-only, with the price rising during rush hour and falling during slower times. Surge pricing for drivers.

It may not start until 2021, but it will be a jolt. Uhren, like other transportation administrators, notes that the amount of federal money for road projects has been leveling off. The main source is the federal gas tax—it contributes 60 percent—and the combination of more fuel-efficient vehicles and the drop in miles driven during the recession meant that the tax produced less money. In addition, Congress hasn’t raised the federal gas tax in two decades. The state gas tax is linked to the cost of living.

Not surprisingly, there also may be some politics at work. In 2014, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting said toll lane developers bankrolled a think tank that produced reports for the state praising the concept. A representative of the think tank served on Gov. Rick Scott’s transportation transition team. Ananth Prasad is a former secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation. Scott appointed him. Prasad had worked for a toll lane developer. As secretary, he approved projects that went to his former employer.

Supporters call the idea a free-market way to manage traffic. In practical terms, however, people with more money get a quicker commute, the state has to pay less money for highway work and the toll lane developer makes a profit.

Palm Beach County officials will have to monitor plans for that third phase of toll lanes when it comes to access for residents. In Miami-Dade County, you enter the lanes at the Golden Glades Interchange and can’t get off until State Road 112—the airport exit—or downtown Miami, where the toll lanes end. As a result, Miami-Dade residents in between don’t benefit.

On the turnpike, which has had tolls since it opened in the 1950s, there will be no new south-county interchanges. The state proposed one at Palmetto Park Road—even though there’s one at Glades Road—and “folks showed up,” as Uhren puts it, to protest. “The political process,” he added, “has run its course.”

Still, the turnpike will be changing. The section from the Palm Beach-Broward line to Lantana Road will be widened from six lanes to eight lanes. From Lantana to the Martin County line, it will increase from four lanes to six lanes. And Uhren said I-95 even could be widened from 10 lanes to 12 lanes, hard as that may be to imagine.

Meanwhile, work will go on to improve the many local-access roads strained by growth. Talk will continue of commuter rail service on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks after upgrades to accommodate All Aboard Florida. The pace and the scope of the work, like the price tag for it, is staggering.

 

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.

Randy Schultz
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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