State rejects West Palm Beach plan to narrow South Dixie Highway, saying it would jam traffic.

WEST PALM BEACH -- One year after state officials approved a dramatic narrowing of a stretch of South Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach, they’ve changed their minds, saying it would aggravate traffic on the busy artery and adjacent roads.


The decision by the Florida Department of Transportation halts a project years in the making to slow the 1.4-mile stretch from Okeechobee Boulevard downtown, southward past Belvedere Road.


The plan, to favor pedestrians and add landscaping and a central turn lane for safety, fell victim to a change of heart by the neighborhoods that once supported it. Spurred by their concerns about congestion, cut-through traffic and parking, the agency updated its road study, while also taking into account numerous development projects planned near the route.


In a letter to Mayor Keith James on April 30, FDOT District 4 Secretary Gerry O’Reilly said the study showed traffic had increased on and near the South Dixie/U.S. 1 corridor, where several approved construction projects promise to add more.


“This is projected to exacerbate congestion along South Dixie Highway associated with the reduced capacity from the lane elimination project,” O’Reilly wrote. “This would also result in a considerable amount of traffic to divert from South Dixie Highway to other local parallel roadways such as South Olive Avenue, Parker Avenue, and Flagler Avenue creating unintended congestion along these routes.”


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The plan called for a “road diet” that would reduce the stretch from four travel lanes to two and use the extra space to add a central lane for left turns from both directions, while widening sidewalks, improving crosswalks and adding shade trees.


But the traffic analysis by Kimley-Horn and Associates found that eliminating travel lanes on South Dixie, a main artery leading into and out of downtown, would reduce its capacity by 9,000 vehicles a day and might cause 4,000 to 10,000 cars to divert onto parallel neighborhood roads, such as S Olive Avenue, S Flagler Drive and Parker Avenue, as well as onto Interstate-95. It also would divert 2,700 cars a day onto already-congested Okeechobee Boulevard, the study concluded.


Construction projects approved or expected near the route include an apartment complex at Albemarle Road, redevelopment of the Palm Beach Post site, redevelopment of the former Carefree Theater site, the Canopy hotel, a new convention center hotel and as many as four downtown office towers.


Project was supported at the start


Kevin Lawler, co-vice president of the El Cid Historic Neighborhood Association, said the design strayed from the goals that led to initial support for the project.


South Dixie merchants hoped for increased on-street parking but the final plan added only remote lots, he said. Neighborhood residents, meanwhile, came to fear that vehicles avoiding the narrowed roadway would cut through their quiet side streets, and that bottlenecks would occur at South Dixie intersections and near Okeechobee, he said.


The Department of Transportation letter to Mayor James left open the possibility of changes other than lane eliminations, Lawler noted. “Increasing the tree canopy would gain a lot of support,” he said.


Lawler, who also was on the association board several years ago when it supported the project, said neighborhood activism gave birth to the plan and contributed to its demise. “I’m really proud of my neighbors for speaking up.”


By contrast, Dana Little, urban design director for the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, expressed dismay at the defeat. Little, who worked through the designs with various agencies and adjusting the project to address community concerns, said the project was a stretch for the DOT and was misunderstood by some residents.


“It was a big risk for the DOT. They’ve never done anything quite like this, not in an urban area like this, ...so there was a lot of hand-wringing. We spent years designing and redesigning.”


Fears that eliminating lanes would contribute to congestion were unwarranted, he added. “This is a very nuanced thing, as I’ve said 1,000 times in different presentations. It is not intuitive work.”


Little argued that just because you’re going from four lanes to three (two travel lanes and a turn lane), doesn’t mean you’re reducing road capacity by 25 percent. The turn lane would ease congestion and eliminate 30 percent of the rear-end crashes that plague the highway, he said. “As much as we kept bringing it up, that part got lost.”


Dixie Highway ’started organically healing itself’


Contributing to the project’s fall from favor was the fact the city was doing a number of road diet and other mobility projects at the same time. That led to fears of “death by 1,000 cuts,” expressed by Town of Palm Beach officials, whose island residents rely upon Okeechobee flowing smoothly near the Royal Park Bridge.


Neighborhood leaders, including Paula Ryan, who went on to be elected a West Palm Beach city commissioner, rallied initial support for the project among the residential and commercial communities several years ago and ultimately got the city’s backing, based on safety, aesthetics, business benefits and an overall shift in emphasis from cars to pedestrian and to addressing quality of life.


FDOT’s regional district approved the plan in 2018 and the agency’s Tallahassee headquarters gave its blessings a year ago.


But early this year, after approvals had been won and millions spent on planning and design, residents of El Cid and other neighborhoods along South Dixie appeared in numbers at a community outreach event and opposed the project.


The concept made sense when it started coalescing a dozen years ago, because South Dixie was filled with empty storefronts with “for lease” signs, and trash building up, no hope for a future,” Steve Simpson, president of the El Cid Neighborhood Association, said at the time. By this past January, the association board, which once advocated for the project, voted unanimously to oppose it.


“Dixie started organically healing itself,” he said. “It’s different now.”


Now traffic backs up during rush hour and neighbors worry about cross traffic through the already narrow, quiet streets of their historic neighborhood, he said.


Christy Fox, recently elected city commissioner for the district, said there’s community support for alternatives to the lane-elimination plan, to provide safety and walkability along the Dixie corridor.


“I would like to find compromises to continue working to make Dixie Highway safer for all users, which includes reviewing driving conditions, and improving sidewalks to include more space and shade for pedestrians,” she said. “Walkable communities are more affordable, more accessible, more sustainable and boost economic development."


tdoris@pbpost.com


Follow Tony Doris at @TonyDorisPBP