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The South Florida Roundup

Could a light rail line help ease congestion in Palm Beach County?

Photo courtesy AAA

Most residents in Palm Beach County who commute from Wellington to downtown West Palm Beach absolutely loathe the congested drive, on the busy stretch through Okeechobee Boulevard and State Road 7.

But a proposed light rail line costing more than $850 million could ease some of the county's notorious traffic congestion, according to a study by the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency unveiled earlier this month.

On the latest episode of the South Florida Roundup, Valerie Nielson, the agency's chief executive, discussed how they believe the system will improve transportation in the area and the next steps for the project.

Nielson said the TPA were looking to find the best way to move people along their busiest corridors including: Forest Hill Boulevard and Okeechobee Boulevard, running east to west; and Military Trail and Congress Avenue, running north to south.

“These are currently our highest transit ridership corridors,” she said. “They have the highest number of people and jobs per mile … as we continue to grow, which we're expecting to continue to grow as a region, how are we going to move more people in a more efficient way?”

These corridors are also where the county sees the most crashes. Between 2017 and 2022, Nielsen said there were 5120 crashes in those stretches, with 14 people were killed and another 61 incapacitated.

Roadway safety remains an issue, and TPA hopes to improve that, along with commute times and walkability in the county.

The light rail would be placed in the middle of the roadway. It would cover more than 13 miles over 17 stops and reduce commuting time from Wellington to downtown West Palm Beach to 38 minutes.

TPA envisions the light rail’s main station in downtown West Palm Beach, with one route that would then go all the way west to the corner of State Road 7 in Okeechobee. From here, they hope there will be circulators or other rides that connect to other areas.

Funding and FDOT impact study are still to come

At this point the agency haven’t pinned down a source for funding, although Nielson said it would come from state and federal dollars.

“Broward and Miami have both passed certain taxes that fund enhanced transit, and they're moving forward with their plans,” she said. "So our hope is that, in the next couple of years, we're able to really have that conversation and see if our residents are ready for something like that.”

TPA chose light rail for their vision over something cheaper like bus rapid transit (BRT) because they believe this system would help generate not only more ridership, but also help aid urban redevelopment along the corridors.

Although their ultimate vision is light rail, Neilson said BRT and other pieces could be placed in the project’s initial stages once the Florida Department of Transportation becomes involved.

“When FDOT comes and studies it, they might say, 'Well, we could potentially do a phased approach,'” she said.

BRT could be built first to cover routes from downtown station until light-rail is implemented. It could also happen the other way, with light rail being implemented first before BRT is added, Nielson explained.

FDOT still needs to conduct an impact study of the area, expected in 2025. Afterwards, it could still be several years before this project gets underway.

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Natu Tweh is WLRN's Morning Edition Producer. He also reports on general news out of South Florida.