Walkable West Palm Beach


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How do impact fees impact urban Palm Beach County?

Tony Doris of The Palm Beach Post covered an issue that is extremely important to municipalities in Palm Beach County: Transportation impact fees. Story is below.

Here is a list of points I think policymakers should be thinking about as we move forward. There is a lot to unpack here so consider this a starting place for discussions.

    • Traffic counts are going down in and around downtown WPB while residential population has increased dramatically. [Article]. This is the power of good urbanism for transportation: As neighborhoods develop a mixture of uses and destinations in a walkable vicinity, trip length and trip frequency declines.

 

    • Even if the streets were congested, which they aren’t, our street network is built-out in and around downtown and what is needed isn’t more road capacity for single occupancy vehicles, but rather different modes that can increase the options of people to get from point A to point B to allow the system to continue functioning. I love this quote from Jarrett Walker of Human Transit, describing the functioning of a transit system:

 

    • As the study by Urban3 shows (see video below), a large portion of the impact fees generated downtown have been spent outside of downtown. Even the major capital project cited as benefiting downtown, the Okeechobee and Australian interchange project, has had specious benefits to the downtown neighborhood. Same for money spent to widen Okeechobee. If suburban commuters’ lives are made slightly more convenient by 30 seconds of travel time each day, at the expense of the urban fabric in which the fees have been generated, can this really be considered a benefit? Besides, the law of induced demand shows that road widening begets more traffic, cancelling out its benefits in short order.

 

    • Urban3’s countywide tax productivity study shows that the breadbasket of the county is the traditionally designed neighborhoods east of I-95. This land area accounts for 1/3 – 1/2 of the entire tax base of Palm Beach County, although as a percentage of the total land area it is much less. (skip to minute 31 in the video below). These are the areas with the highest potency, with downtown West Palm Beach the most potent of all land areas in the county. Good stewardship over the county’s fundamental resource (land) would suggest that policymakers not just safeguard, but enhance, this high yielding source of wealth and county operating revenue.

 

    • Let’s not forget that city residents pay county taxes just the same as folks in the unincorporated part of the county. What are city dwellers in neighborhoods east of I-95 getting in return for this substantial county tax levy?

 

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County staff is simply following policy as it is written. A smarter transportation impact fee policy will make a stronger county and stronger cities. This change needs to come from the County Commission. There’s much more to be said on this subject, but it’s good it is starting to get attention. Palm Beach Post story below.

 

Urban3 presentation at the Chamber of Commerce – “How We Value the City”

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As business improved, the owners of Table 427 in West Palm’s up-and-coming Northwood Village looked forward to adding a patio with seating for 100 more.

That would give Maria and Roberto Villegas enough seats to qualify for a free liquor license to really boost business. In preparation they bought chairs, tables, refrigerators and a fountain.

Then Palm Beach County officials told them if they hoped to obtain a building permit, they’d have to pay a $17,000 impact fee for road improvements. They only gross $13,000 a month, Maria Villegas says.

And what road would the county use the money for that could possibly benefit them, she asks. “The back alley?”

“If we can’t do the patio, we will take our equipment and move it to the Gardens and do another small restaurant there,” her husband says. “If you want to bring people to the area, give us a little help.”

City Administrator Jeff Green says the Villegas are poster children for a county tax program whose fees are designed to improve roads but which charges too much and puts improvements where they’re of little benefit to urbanized areas like Northwood or downtown.

Where is the money going?

The city commission has scheduled a vote for Feb. 16 on a resolution urging the county to use impact fees not just to widen suburban roads but for “alternative transportation infrastructure, streetscape improvements and other investments more appropriate for the eastern urban area.”

County Administrator Verdenia Baker — who once served as impact fee coordinator — counters that the program is being used exactly as set forth in the county charter, for thoroughfares, collectors and arterial roads. “They are not necessarily spent on city roads,” she says. “In addition, they can only be expended for capacity purposes and not maintenance or repair or renewal, just capacity, and that’s how it’s calculated. If we included all of those other costs, …the costs would be very high.”

Impact fees are commonly used by Florida counties to have builders pay for municipal needs associated with that urban growth.

But in an unusually pointed article in the Insider Newsletter on West Palm Beach’s website, next to a photo of Mayor Jeri Muoio, the city says the county’s administration of the impact fees amounts to “a multimillion-dollar problem.”

The article, headlined, “City wants the county to spend downtown dollars downtown,” says road impact fees are assessed by estimating how much traffic a project will generate, and charging accordingly. The money is supposed to pay for adding lanes, buying right-of-ways to help widen roads or for installing traffic signals, the city says.

The problem: “The county is using it on projects in other places (sometimes not even in the city.),” the article says.

“If your restaurant is on the corner of Okeechobee Boulevard and Jog Road, then most of your customers probably will drive to get there because they don’t live within walking distance. But if your restaurant is on the corner of Clematis Street and Olive Avenue, then many of your customers probably won’t drive to get there,” the article says.

So, the city wants the county to change the rules and use the money not just for road capacity but for trolleys or bike share programs or other improvements that help people get about downtown, where the money is generated in the first place.

Interpretation of the program

But Baker says impact fees were never meant to serve as the city proposes.

“We have spent the money properly and we have spent dollars within the zone to lay the foundation for people to get in and out of downtown West Palm Beach,” she says. The money is meant for capital projects, not operating costs like trolley systems, she says.

She adds that the fee structure is based on how much impact a project is expected to have on area roads, on average. But any developer or business owner expanding a building is free to hire a traffic consultant, take measurements, do a study and make a case for a reduced fee, as long as they follow the county’s basic methodology, she says.

West Palm’s Green counters that during the past 11 years, the county collected $9.3 million from the downtown impact fee zone but only $6.5 million went back to the zone for projects. It went toward rebuilding the interchange at Okeechobee and Australian Avenue, for example, and to widen Okeechobee.

The spending isn’t limited to the immediate area where the money was collected, but that doesn’t mean contributors don’t benefit, Baker responds. “People who live in the downtown area do leave the downtown area.”

As far as the heft of the fees, she says, the county has a backlog of road projects, not to mention the vast amount of development in the pipeline that promises to impact county roads even more. “Every time we don’t collect enough revenue to offset the impact, it becomes part of the backlog.”

“I’m not saying they didn’t spend the money to improve downtown,” City Administrator Green says. “But if you were to add up the numbers, the amount they collected in our area versus the amount they spent in our area….”

And with $2.5 billion worth of development projects in the pipeline, most of them downtown, he said, “it’s only going to get worse.”

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Palm Beach County: 0.5 | City of West Palm Beach: 0

Recent interactions with the County have been refreshingly positive. The County, which apparently controls signalization and (some?) striping at intersections, has responded in a prompt and serious manner about pedestrian safety concerns in downtown. Bravo, County Engineering! No, this is not an early April Fool’s joke.

 

Case one was a missing crosswalk connecting the Hyatt Place hotel on Olive Avenue and Lakeview to the Two City Plaza condominium building across the street, and CityPlace further east. This is a frequently crossed intersection for residents of 2CP as well as guests at the Hyatt Place, and although there are pedestrian signals, the crosswalk was missing, leading to a potentially dangerous situation for right-turning cars headed west on Lakeview. The crosswalk will help alert drivers to the presence of pedestrians here.

Case two is a pedestrian pushbutton issue for the Quadrille and Hibiscus Street intersection. The response I received is pasted below.

 Thank you for bringing your traffic concerns to our attention. You are right about the street light. they are the jurisdiction of the State and the City.

 We pulled the pedestrian signal activation log and found that a lot of people cross at this intersection. Most of the crossing happened on the south leg with the number of activations exceeding 210 on Saturday. Quite a few cross on the north leg as well, and only few cross north and south.

 Staff has increased the “WALK” signal phase time from 7:00 to 10:00 seconds on all approaches. They also increased the “FLASHING DON’T WALK” time to cross Quadrille from 16:00 to 18:00 seconds. The maximum green signal time for the east/west movement was also increased to make sure there is enough time for pedestrians to cross even after the end of the pedestrian signal phase.

 We don’t think it is a good idea to put the pedestrian signal phase on recall so it’ll come up automatically during each signal cycle. This will cause an unnecessary disruption to the vehicular traffic on Quadrille. Moreover, the turning traffic may not pay attention to pedestrian in the crosswalk because they’ll  get used to seeing the pedestrian signal display coming up when there are no pedestrians in the cross walk.

 As an intersection with high pedestrian activity, we’ll replace the existing pedestrian signals with countdown signals. this work should be done in few weeks.

 Fattoush,

Can you please issue a WO to replace the existing pedestrian signals at the intersection of Hibiscus and Quadrille with countdown signals?

 Thank you.

 Motasem Al-Turk, Ph.D., P.E.

Traffic Division

Palm Beach County

Let’s be clear: This solution is far from perfect, and I’m going to continue to push for the signalization regime recommended by walkability expert Jeff Speck [refer to page 22 of the downtown walkability study – main section pasted below]. Pedestrians should have better prioritization from left and right turning cars at this intersection, such as a leading pedestrian indicator. Better light timing and a countdown signal does little to solve the real issue: Cars are king on Quadrille, without exception, and to impede their movement in any way is anathema.  Even though this solution leaves a lot to be desired, and I disagree with the assessment of Mr. Al-Turk, the County is still to be commended for taking the issue seriously and promptly doing something about it that has made the intersection marginally better. At least pedestrians are not stranded in the middle of the intersection as the crossing traffic light turns green.

Jeff Speck Walkability Study, on pedestrian-friendly signals:

A survey of the most and least walkable cities in America reveals a clear correlation: walkable cities rarely have pushbutton signal request buttons. Called “beg buttons” by pedestrian advocates, these signals are alternately annoying and confusing to pedestrians, most of whom do not understand how they are supposed to work—and many of whom end up jaywalking out of sheer frustration.

Here is how these signals work in downtown West Palm Beach: A pedestrian approaches a crosswalk, pushes the button, and waits for the light to change. Typically, a long time passes before the light changes—sometimes more than two minutes. After perhaps 30 seconds, the pedestrian assumes that the light is broken, and jaywalks.

What the pedestrian does not realize is that the pushbutton is not designed to cause the light to change. Rather, it is designed only to lengthen the eventual red light, so that the pedestrian has more time to cross. Given the tremendous amount of jaywalking that these signals cause, these lengthened crossing times are, at best, irrelevant. This dangerous behavior is perhaps the clearest example of the vast difference between traffic safety theory and traffic-safety reality in Palm Beach County, and should be of grave concern to County engineers.

If County engineers want to create a system in which jaywalking is reduced and pedestrian safety enhanced, they will look to other places where cars and pedestrians interact with a much lower incidence of injury, such as Boston, Washington DC, Chicago, San Francisco, and the smaller towns that surround these cities. What they will find in these places is an almost complete absence of pushbutton signals, short cycles of 60 seconds or less (total), and “concurrent” crossing regimes, in which pedestrians move with parallel traffic, and turning cars must wait for the crosswalks to clear.

Such signals are made more effective by a technology called the Leading Pedestrian Interval (LPI), in which pedestrians receive a 3-second head start to enter (and “claim”) the intersection before cars receive a green light. There are a number of locations where these could be put to good use in the downtown.

In terms of encouraging safe pedestrian behavior, the length of the signal cycle is of great significance. When traffic congestion is the dominant concern, traffic engineers prefer longer signal cycles, as they have the advantage of moving large volumes of cars on each approach. These longer periods of vehicle movement mean longer waits for pedestrians trying to cross a street. This is more than just an inconvenience, because it causes jaywalking. For this reason, the long-cycle signalization regimes that make sense in suburban Palm beach County are ill suited to  pedestrian-heavy areas like Downtown West Palm Beach, and should be corrected at the first opportunity.

 

The irony is that the County, which has historically been no ally in creating more walkable streets in West Palm Beach, has taken more bona fide action than the City of West Palm Beach at this point. And that is a pretty low bar, as these pushbutton timing and crosswalk stripings are superficial interventions by their nature. By superficial, I mean interventions that do little to tip the risk  scale in favor of people on foot versus those driving a car. Nonetheless, it is something.

The City/CRA/DDA undertook the Walkability Study. But to this point, not a single of its recommendations have been implemented, even though the City recently identified 17 recommendations ready to go, now.

Implement this study! Choose one of the 17 recommendations, get some paint, and restripe a lane. Now.

 


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Mandatory Walkable WPB listening: High Noon in Lake Worth with Joe Minicozzi

The fantastic “High Noon in Lake Worth” podcast by Wes Blackman interviews many of our most influential city leaders, past and present. I found a past episode in which Wes interviews Joe Minicozzi. Joe is one of my favorite people in the city-making world and his work has been very influential on me. Joe’s bio and show description, from the podcast episode:

Join your host Wes Blackman as he welcomes Joe Minicozzi to the High Noon in Lake Worth studios. He is currently is the principal of Urban3, LLC (U3), a consulting company created by the downtown Asheville real estate developer Public Interest Projects. Prior to U3, he served as the Executive Director for the Asheville Downtown Association.  Before moving to Asheville, he was the primary administrator of the Form Based Code for downtown West Palm Beach, FL [1998 – 2003].  Joe is a founding member of the Asheville Design Center, a non-profit community design center dedicated to creating livable communities across all of Western North Carolina.  He received his Bachelor of Architecture from University of Miami and Masters in Architecture and Urban Design from Harvard University.

Some topics covered

  • How the Convention Center could have been better designed to show respect for the adjacent Grandview Heights neighborhood
  • Imagine getting off the plane at PBI and taking a ferry directly from PBI Airport to the convention center and downtown. It could have happened, if not for the county crushing the plan
  • The economic harm of arbitrarily giving away development rights, and the need for a consistent, non-political framework to guide development decisions
  • Chapel by the Lake site
  • Why the focus on density and height is misplaced. It’s about design.
  • How our downtowns and urban places are our true economic engines, bringing in a tax yield that is orders of magnitude higher than suburban sprawl or big box development

If you want to understand better the dynamics that shaped and continue to shape West Palm Beach, make sure to bookmark this episode and subscribe to the High Noon in Lake Worth podcast. Joe is on the December 20, 2013 episode.

Direct link to podcast episode: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/highnoonlakeworth/2013/12/20/joseph-minicozzi-aicp–urban-plannerdesigner


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Proposal to spend one billion dollars on stroad flyovers

The MPO is considering a plan to build 6 new interchanges west of I-95, at a cost of over $75 million each. This doesn’t even include land acquisition costs. Recall that the PBIA flyover debacle cost over $150 million dollars, so this project could easily cost close to one BILLION dollars to build out.

Western Palm Beach County?

Western Palm Beach County?

Kudos to County Commissioner Paulette Burdick for pushing against this absurd proposal.

Article from the Palm Beach Post.

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Palm Beach County faces big decision, big costs ahead on massive western interchangesPosted: 7:16 p.m. Thursday, March 20, 2014

BY JOE CAPOZZI – PALM BEACH POST STAFF WRITER

When Curtis Lewis’ family opened the Okeechobee Steak House in 1947, Okeechobee Boulevard was a two-lane road.

If local transportation planners get their way, what is now an eight-lane road would rise up and over the restaurant some day as part of a massive urban interchange project.

“At this point, I’m not worried because I don’t see where they’re going to end up getting the money,” said Lewis, whose restaurant sits just west of where Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard merges with Okeechobee.

None of the six proposed interchanges in Palm Beach County has any money earmarked yet. But preliminary estimates put the combined construction costs at $446 million — or an average of roughly $74 million each. And that doesn’t include the other expensive necessity of purchasing land for the rights of way.

“By the time you do them all, you’re (almost) over half a billion dollars,” County Commissioner Paulette Burdick said Thursday.

State transportation officials will offer recommendations next month to the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization for ranking which interchanges should be done first.

At their monthly meeting Thursday, MPO board members only briefly discussed the urban interchanges: four on Okeechobee Boulevard at Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, Military Trail, State Road 7 and Jog Road; one at Northlake Boulevard and the Beeline Highway in Palm Beach Gardens; and one at Forest Hill Boulevard and State Road 7 in Wellington.

Construction on any of them wouldn’t start until 2025 at the earliest. But Burdick made it clear she thinks the idea should be scrapped now.

“It will have a devastating effect on all of the businesses on Okeechobee Boulevard,” she said. “I would really stress looking at other modes of transportation as an investment in the future instead of more roadways and interchanges.”

Residents at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens have been complaining about the proposed flyover at Northlake and the Beeline.

A more in-depth evaluation of the six proposed urban interchanges — a term used for a road that goes up and over another road — is expected at the MPO’s April 17 meeting.

“You can make that conversation very short,” Nick Uhren, the MPO’s executive director, told the board Thursday.

“If the board wants to adopt a policy that says we don’t like grade-separated interchanges, then we won’t have to do any more analyses. That’s certainly an option on the table. I professionally believe that there are potentially corridors where it makes sense to consider additional interchanges.”

Although Uhren didn’t cite any examples to the board, several major intersections are projected to have high traffic counts over the next 20 years.

For example, the intersection of Okeechobee Boulevard and Military Trail would have 132,800 daily vehicle trips in 2035, according to MPO projections. Today, there are 100,232 daily trips through that intersection.

Forest Hill Boulevard and State Road 7 is the largest “at-grade” intersection in the county, with 31 total lanes (including turning lanes) approaching from all four directions. There are 94,177 daily trips through that intersection today, and the 2035 projections call for 105,000 trips.

“It needs to not be a do-nothing approach,” Uhren said after the meeting when asked about resistance to urban interchanges.

“But at the same time, when you’ve got bottlenecks for cars, there’s not an alternative. Unless you can convince people to get out of their cars, you cannot provide the capacity of an urban interchange in another fashion to move that many cars.”

Burdick hopes the MPO board will consider alternatives such as expanding the Palm Tran bus service or using advanced technology that improves traffic-signal systems.

“Expanding our roadways is not the answer,” she said after the meeting. “Our roads are pretty much built out. Now we are going to go up and over homes and businesses?” she said.

“There’s got to be other ways of moving people other than keeping them on expanded roadways between these interchanges.”