BY MARIE PULEO
City officials have been working to stave off the possible negative impacts of a bike lane project that is being proposed along Federal Highway from Sample Road to the Palm Beach County line.
The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), in conjunction with the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), plans to widen the existing 3-foot-wide northbound and southbound bike lanes, but the City opposed a project design that would have encroached on 57 trees that Lighthouse Point established and maintains along the east side of Federal Highway, as well as 11 trees in the median area.
The project design required widening the outside (right-hand) lanes of the highway by 1 foot and taking 2 feet from either side of the median area, in order to create 6-foot-wide bike lanes that include a buffer zone.
Among the trees threatened by the project were 45 royal palm trees that the City planted about 20 years ago to improve the Federal Highway corridor, and create a “signature” Lighthouse Point feature. The trees were paid for by the City, property owners and store owners. According to the city’s Public Works Department, the royal palms have a current estimated replacement value of approximately $8,000 each.
The project’s original concept called for widening the outside lanes of the highway by 4 feet in order to create a 7-foot-wide bike lane, which would have impacted many more Lighthouse Point trees.
According to city officials, when they first met with FDOT a couple of months ago to discuss the project, they made it clear that it was “absolutely unacceptable” to remove the trees. Not long after, city officials became alarmed after noticing the royal palms and other trees had been marked with pink ribbons. FDOT informed them that the trees had been marked for a survey related to the bike lane project.
The City Commission discussed the project for the first time at its meeting on Sept. 12, and was of the consensus that something needed to be done as quickly as possible.
Commissioner Michael Long said he was concerned that the City would lose not only all the royal palms and hardwoods it “worked very hard to have,” but also all the low-lying landscaping.
“I think that what we have to do is really move forward very aggressively to protect what is ours,” said Long.
Soon after, city officials had another meeting with FDOT, at which they reiterated their opposition to removing the trees.
At the City’s request, Scott Thurman, the FDOT project manager, and Ricardo Gutierrez, an MPO program manager, presented an update on the status of the project at the City Commission meeting on Oct. 9.
The project, which has an estimated cost of $12 million, is an MPO “priority project” that will use state funding.
Thurman said FDOT and the MPO had been discussing the City’s concerns (as well as those of Deerfield Beach, which is also affected by the project) to see if options could be found to both accommodate the bike lanes and keep the trees.
“I realize that the aesthetic nature of the corridor is significant,” said Thurman.
One option that was being considered had called for reducing the width of the left-hand through lanes (not the left turn lanes), from 11 feet to 10 feet by restriping them, which would have provided 4-foot-wide bike lanes, with no buffer. While this option would have only increased the width of the current bike lanes by 1 foot, it would have allowed them to be designated, striped bike lanes with signage, which requires a minimum 4-foot width. The current 3-foot-wide bike lanes are considered a paved shoulder, not true bike lanes.
The restriping option would not have impacted the trees along the corridor and would have decreased the project cost by more than one-half, according to Thurman.
At the same time, the MPO had been looking to see what could be done to maximize the footprint of the bike lanes. It wanted them to be buffered, to provide bicyclists with a higher comfort level.
Gutierrez said the MPO has been trying to implement what is known as a “complete streets” project, which is designed to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders. Complete streets typically include fewer traffic lanes, wider sidewalks and bike lanes, medians and landscaping.
Commissioner Sandy Johnson noted that “massacring the landscaping” was the opposite of the complete streets concept.
Commissioner Long questioned the need for a complete streets project on Federal Highway, which has high speeds and high traffic.
Commission President Jason Joffe said he was concerned about the trees, but was more concerned about traffic, because traffic is bad, and “I don’t see how you do this without shrinking lanes.”
Johnson, concerned about the safety hazard posed by shrinking lanes, asked Gutierrez to find out if it had been done along Federal Highway in any neighboring areas.
Gutierrez told commissioners that although the project plans were about 60 percent complete, there was still time to evaluate various options..
“We want to come up with a solution that you will support,” he said.
About a week after the Oct. 9 meeting, FDOT and the MPO came up with an option that would take 2 feet from either side of the approximately 20-foot-wide median area – comprised of the left-hand turn lanes and the landscaped traffic separator – and nothing from the outside lanes, which would create 5-foot-wide designated bike lanes with no buffer. This plan would involve narrowing the left-hand turn lanes from their current width of about 13 feet, to a width of 11, or possibly 10, feet.
This option would impact a total of 11 Lighthouse Point trees, all in the median area, but no royal palms. Seven of the trees could be relocated on the project site using state funds. The City would have the option to place the four remaining trees, mahoganies which are costly to relocate, somewhere within the city using its own funds.
FDOT and MPO are scheduled to come before the City Commission at its meeting on Nov. 13 to present the new plan. If the Commission supports it, work would likely begin in August 2019, and take about one year to complete.