Opinion

Irresponsible to borrow from our children to build a road to nowhere

I wanted to continue the conversation on why the city of West Palm Beach is opposed to the proposed State Road 7 extension to Northlake Boulevard.

In these tough economic times, this conversation should be about conservative fiscal responsibility. It should include the question: Why would responsible government agencies support a road to nowhere costing taxpayers two to three times more than it should? There are reasonable alternatives available to address the traffic considerations of every citizen who supports the road. Those alternatives should be explored so that the cost of the road is not unnecessarily escalated due to the cost to mitigate adverse impacts to water and environmental habitat.

The environmental assessment for the proposed State Road 7 indicates that the extension proposed adjacent to the water catchment area is projected to cost $43 million. This project could cost 2.5 times that amount. The assessment acknowledges that mitigation costs are not included in the estimate. It is reasonable for taxpayers to conclude that the cost of a roadway extension that far surpasses the adverse impacts contemplated by the Roebuck Road extension will substantially exceed the mitigation costs for that extension.

By the time the proposed road is constructed and mitigation is secured, it could cost in excess of $100 million in wasteful spending for a mere eight miles of pavement that offers little traffic mitigation. The Florida Department of Transportation’s own model cost estimate for construction of a new suburban four-lane road with paved shoulders and curbed median is only $4,782,594 per mile. It boggles the mind that this project has progressed this far with the federal highway trust fund on the brink of insolvency and local government budgets under tremendous strain. Meanwhile, as this project distracts us all, we have an ever-increasing backlog of maintenance on existing roads and highways.

This conversation should also be about health and safety. Clean water is vital to South Florida. Over 300,000 residents in the Palm Beaches depend on our water catchment area to provide safe drinking water for themselves and their families. Much of our economy is dependent on having a ready supply of this precious resource. And numerous endangered species call the pristine Grassy Water Preserve home. In short, just the mere construction of the proposed road would forever alter the ability of the water catchment area to serve its intended purpose, thus putting our health, businesses and quality of life in needless peril. And if the unthinkable happened and a vehicle breached a barrier and entered the preserve, the damage would be irreversible.

To be clear, our concerns are more than justified. On Feb. 29, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cautioned Florida transportation officials that the three east-of-Ibis alternatives “would result in significant adverse impacts to high-quality fish and wildlife habitat and public conservation lands.” The service stated further that “[b]ased on the impacts to fish and wildlife, fish and wildlife habit and public conservation lands, we do not support any of the ‘east of Ibis’ build alternatives.”

This conversation should also be about necessity and cost-benefit. The environmental assessment states that even though over 14,000 residential units proposed for the areas surrounding the project corridor have been cancelled since the start of the study, “the traffic analysis prepared for this study maintains the need for a four-lane divided facility even with lower growth and population estimates.” Further, the city hired a traffic consultant to review the need for the road. Preliminary analysis indicates that all roads within and adjacent to the study area have shown a decrease in traffic in the last five years.

Proponents would like to make the city’s opposition about where I live. Where I live is not relevant to the conversation. As a matter of fact, in January 2007, the city passed a resolution in strong opposition to the state Department of Transportation’s proposed alternatives 3 and 4 adjacent to the water catchment area. While I lived in Ibis, I was not mayor at the time and was only one of five votes on the City Commission.

Finally, even if the city were in favor of the project, and in the extremely unlikely event that federal permits were secured, the city is prevented from transferring land required for the project by a special act of the Florida Legislature, which requires retention of the land in perpetuity and prohibits transfer for purposes inconsistent with public water supply, education, environmental and conservation purposes.

I encourage the state and federal permitting agencies to take a hard look at this proposal. Simply put, moving forward with this project is fiscally and environmentally irresponsible, and it puts our children’s future quality of life at great risk.

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