PALM BEACH COUNTY transportation planners are about to explore a bold plan to reroute a half-mile stretch of Okeechobee Boulevard through an underground tunnel on the south edge of downtown West Palm Beach.
According to Palm Beach County Mayor Robert Weinroth, who said the idea was met with enthusiasm in recent meetings he had with Related Cos. Chairman Stephen Ross and West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James, the general concept would work like this:
The tunnel would start just west of the CSX railroad tracks at Tamarind Avenue (which carry Tri-Rail trains) and end on the east side of the FEC railroad tracks (Brightline and freight) a half mile to the east at Quadrille Boulevard.
The old roadway above would be transformed into a public green space where pedestrians could safely walk from the Palm Beach County Convention Center and Hilton hotel to the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts and The Square shopping district. Now, pedestrians must wait at stop lights before crossing six to eight lanes of traffic.
The tunnel would reduce bottleneck traffic from cars coming and going to Interstate 95, just under a mile west of the CSX tracks, and Australian Avenue while improving the commute to and from the island of Palm Beach. It would also allow traffic to bypass two sets of railroad tracks.
“I think we all agree that West Palm Beach is really poised to take advantage of things that are coming together,’’ Weinroth said in an interview, mentioning future downtown development, including plans for a University of Florida campus and a Transit Village.
“This,” he said of the tunnel, “would be icing on the cake.”
The Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency, which Weinroth chairs, is embarking on the next step: Looking for state and federal money to pay for an engineering study that would determine the feasibility and costs of a tunnel.
The TPA also plans to seek input from area partners and stakeholders — from the state, city, county and convention center to rail operators, residents and downtown merchants.
“It’s a big idea that needs to be evaluated,’’ said Valerie Neilson, the TPA’s interim executive director. “We are still in the very initial stages of this conversation, but we hope to move the ball forward in the next month.’’
Although the idea of a tunnel has been kicked around over the years, Weinroth broached the concept April 21 in brief remarks at a TPA board meeting.
“I had a very interesting conversation with Steve Ross about the potential of a tunnel on Okeechobee Boulevard starting at the CSX tracks and going to the FEC tracks, with the potential of creating a green space in the middle of that area and stopping the current bottleneck that's created as people get off 95 and try to go to the island,’’ he told board members.
“It’s certainly in the very preliminary stages of conversation but he embraced the idea. I also had a conversation with Mayor James and he thinks it would be a great opportunity to look at this.’’
In an interview after the meeting, Weinroth stressed that the idea is only in the early conversational stage. Major questions need to be answered, including, but not limited to, the location of turning lanes for commuters headed to the convention center, Kravis Center and The Square; and a tunnel route with minimal disruption to underground utilities.
“We need to have engineers look at this,’’ he said. “You have to have a way of getting down to the Kravis, so you just can't bypass that whole area. There would have to be some above-ground opportunities to turn right or left at Tamarind.’’
The half-mile long section of Okeechobee targeted for the tunnel currently rises in elevation on a coastal ridge, from roughly 13 feet above sea level at Tamarind Avenue to a peak of 32 feet above sea level by the convention center before sloping back down to the east, according to one topographical map.
“It really is interesting, when you come up to that spot you'll notice there's a grade that goes up from the tracks so it really wouldn't be difficult to get below grade very quickly,’’ Weinroth said.
“It’s not as simple as just digging a hole and forcing the traffic to go underneath instead of over, but I think this is a much more sophisticated and elegant solution than talking about a pedestrian overpass to get people from the convention center to the other side (of Okeechobee Boulevard).’’
Weinroth is among critics who believe most pedestrians won’t have the patience to use a footbridge. Re-routing vehicular traffic through a tunnel beneath the existing route is a better solution for pedestrian safety, he said.
“It really would be a pretty green space up there and it would really lend itself to adding a lot of quality of life for residents and visitors to West Palm Beach,’’ he said.
Weinroth said he discussed the tunnel idea over coffee with James a week before the April TPA meeting as part of a broader conversation about downtown development. While he said James was receptive, Weinroth also stressed that the West Palm Beach mayor was speaking for himself and not the city commission.
Ross, the driving force behind CityPlace, now The Square, and owner of the Miami Dolphins football team, met with Weinroth later that week in the mayor's office at the county Governmental Center downtown.
“We also talked about potential development in West Palm Beach,’’ Weinroth said of his meeting with Ross. “Is there going to be a buildout of the convention center? Is there going to be additional hotel rooms needed? Lots of stuff was talked about but nothing concrete.’’
Ross has proposed adding a 500-room hotel next to the existing convention center hotel south of Okeechobee Boulevard.
Last year, Weinroth traveled to Las Vegas to see underground tunnels built there by Elon Musk’s The Boring Co. Weinroth was getting ideas for a suggestion he’d made earlier that summer about creating five tunnels across Palm Beach County to move vehicular traffic away from railroad crossings, including one under Okeechobee Boulevard in downtown West Palm Beach.
The other four would be at Northlake Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens, Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach, and Glades Road and Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton, according to WPEC.
A Boring Co. tunnel project proposed for downtown Fort Lauderdale is projected to cost about $1.8 billion.
Of the five Palm Beach County tunnel options, it appears the downtown West Palm plan will be the first option to get serious consideration.
“It's not something that's gonna be done overnight,’’ Weinroth said. “But it's certainly worthy of the effort to take it to the next step and start seeing what would this look like.’’
(Joe Capozzi worked as an aide for Palm Beach County Mayor Robert Weinroth from Jan. 4 to March 12, 2021.)
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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 in the newspaper business, 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.