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Light Rail Transit pitched for Okeechobee Boulevard, State Road 7

Updated: Jan 16, 2023

IMAGINE A LIGHT rail transit line running 13.5 miles down the center of Okeechobee Boulevard from downtown West Palm Beach west to State Road 7 and swinging south to the Mall at Wellington Green.

Along the way are 16 stations, some with park-and-ride lots, each accessed by signalized pedestrian crosswalks and within walking distance of newly redeveloped homes, offices and shops.

That’s the bold vision of local transportation planners who say the LRT is the best option for alleviating traffic congestion that’s projected to get worse on the busy eight-lane corridor over the next 20 years.

Building it won’t be cheap. Preliminary cost estimates range from $500 million to $800 million, money that will come from state and federal grants, a dedicated surtax or other voter-approved funding sources.

But planners at the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency, who unveiled the vision at a series of meetings this month, believe the LRT could transform the aging, congested corridor by offering a reliable mobility alternative that would inspire redevelopment.

Before and after renderings of Okeechobee Boulevard at the Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard intersection. (Palm Beach TPA)

“I can't imagine folks not embracing this,’’ Palm Beach Gardens Mayor Chelsea Reed said Dec. 15 after TPA staff and consultants pitched their LRT vision to the agency’s governing board.

“I know change isn't easy but when we talk about safety, access, all the things we are looking for, this seems (like) a really worthy solution,’’ said Reed, the TPA board’s chairperson.

The LRT vision is the result of several public workshops, held since last year, about future transportation options along the Okeechobee Boulevard/State Road 7 corridor. Among seven options kicked around at the workshops were dedicated rapid bus transit lines and an elevated LRT line.

The road-level LRT line emerged as the most desired option for several reasons, including safety, concerns about increased vehicular traffic and the expectation that private developers will be more inclined to invest around a fixed light rail line.

“We see this as the best potential,’’ TPA executive director Valerie Neilson said Dec. 7 at an advisory board meeting.

(Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency)

Noting that Tri-Rail and Brightline already offer north-south commuter rail service, the LRT would offer an east-west rail option, she said.

While building the LRT will be expensive, Neilson said there are success stories. An LRT line in Phoenix that cost $2 billion to build brought in $12 billion in redevelopment 10 years after it began operating in 2008, she said.

The LRT line would require repurposing of the two inside lanes on Okeechobee Boulevard, one for each direction, and would improve the bicycle lanes by adding a physical buffer and adding 12-foot-wide sidewalks.

“On Okeechobee, travel times are going up and up as more cars try to use the roadway,’’ Stewart Robertson of Kimley Horn told the TPA board on Dec. 15.

With the LRT, “we would be able to offer travelers a reliable trip time,’’ he said. “The models we used are predicting that it would be 38 minutes from one end to the other. And that would be reliable everyday, so as congestion increases on the corridor, people who choose to ride transit would have a reliable trip time to get into downtown West Palm Beach.’’

The line would pass through central Palm Beach County, the Village of Wellington, the Village of Royal Palm Beach and the City of West Palm Beach.

Much of the commercial development in the corridor was built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, ripe for being transformed through “transit oriented development" — concentrated nodes of mixed-use developments that encourage people to walk, bike and use transit.

“By moving people with trains, bicycles and their own two feet, light rail and its surrounding development will help relieve additional congestion that will occur without additional transportation options along Okeechobee Blvd. and SR 7,’’ the corridor study says.

Some transportation leaders aren’t sold on the idea, which will be studied in coming years by the Florida Department of Transportation.

Motasem Al-Turk, director of Palm Beach County’s traffic engineering division, said he wants to see a more detailed study of how the LRT line would impact traffic flow in the corridors and whether it would actually relieve vehicular congestion.

Okeechobee Boulevard has eight lanes, four in each direction. The LRT would take up the two middle vehicular lanes, effectively reducing the number of lanes for cars and buses to six, according to the report.

“We all recognize that no matter what you do, light rail or not, it will only capture a very small, very humble percentage of traffic on this corridor,’’ he said Dec. 7 at the TPA’s Technical Advisory Committee meeting.

“This is a huge project. It’s going to be siphoning away a lot of our future funding for transportation planning and we want to make sure it does add to our assets and solve our problems, not do the opposite, making our traffic problems even worse.’’

Renderings by Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency

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About the author

Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.


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