What a drive! Watch video of a rainy day trip down A1A
By Rich Pollack
It is a main street unlike any other in South Florida, connecting coastal communities and serving as a major thoroughfare for people wanting a leisurely drive, a pleasant walk or a beachside bicycle ride.
For more than 90 years, State Road A1A has served as a peaceful pathway stretching almost 340 miles along the Florida coastline from Key West to just south of the Georgia line.
During much of that time, A1A has seen little significant change, especially through the coastal portions of Palm Beach County. It has always been a two-lane highway, traffic has always moved mostly at about 35 miles per hour or slower, and it has always been popular with pedestrians, bicyclists and motoring tourists.
That’s not likely to change — at least not in the next 10 years — according to at least one local leader at the Florida Department of Transportation, which is responsible for maintaining A1A and has ownership and oversight of the road and swaths of land 50 feet from the center line on either side of the pavement.
A1A in Palm Beach County “will probably look exceedingly similar to what it looks like today,” says Stacy Miller, director of transportation development for FDOT District 4, which includes Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties.
That’s not to say there won’t be an emphasis on safety improvements — maybe bike paths where there are none, improved sidewalks or perhaps lighted crosswalks — and efforts to alleviate drainage problems or slow down traffic.
That would be good news to safety advocates such as Delray Beach’s Jim Smith, chairman of SAFE.
“Ten years from now, SAFE would like to see an A1A with no bicyclists riding in the travel lanes, no drivers speeding, no pedestrians jaywalking, no bicyclists forced to ride in a 1-foot to 4-foot paved shoulder on account of substandard bike lanes, and complete sidewalks on both sides of the road where there is sufficient right of way,” Smith said. “Of course, SAFE’s biggest hope is that the vision of zero fatalities be realized.”
Changes along A1A don’t come quickly, however, and they don’t come without communities that propose initiatives and state transportation officials coming together to work out solutions that both can live with.
Also joining the conversation are representatives of the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency, which works to collaboratively plan, prioritize and fund the county’s transportation system.
“It’s always a partnership,” Miller says. “Our goal is to meet the needs of the department and of communities but there are compromises that have to be met.”
Like Smith, the TPA promotes the “Complete Streets” concept, which promotes safe and convenient access and travel for pedestrians and bicyclists as well as motor vehicle drivers.
“The TPA would like to see safe, connected and convenient facilities for users of all ages, abilities and modes of transportation, as appropriate with the local context of the roadway,” said Valerie Neilson, TPA’s deputy director of multimodal development.
While some communities may have specific priorities — lighted pedestrian crosswalks, for example — FDOT takes a broader view that considers everyone who could be affected.
“We have a responsibility to all users,” Miller says. “We have to weigh all the needs.”
Every now and then, a community will have an opportunity to more speedily bring a wish list of improvements to fruition. Highland Beach could soon have that opportunity thanks to a likely FDOT resurfacing, rehabilitation and restoration project of the just more than 3 miles of roadway through town.
According to Miller, FDOT does an annual evaluation of every state road, looking for cracking and rutting and other issues. The department then includes that “3-R” work in its five-year improvement plan.
Although Highland Beach is not yet included in FDOT’s draft tentative work program for fiscal years 2019/2020 through 2022/2023, Miller said it is anticipated that the project will be included in the 2020/2021 tentative work program, which stretches into the 2024/2025 fiscal year. What specific years money for the project will be available is still unknown.
Right now, the stretch of A1A in Highland Beach is the only portion of the road in southern Palm Beach County being considered for a 3R project.
In anticipation of the resurfacing work, FDOT has reached out to Highland Beach to see what improvements the community would like in conjunction with the 3R project. While the scope of the work is up in the air, FDOT will most likely add bike lanes.
Meanwhile, Highland Beach voters will decide March 12 whether the town will fund improvements along A1A that other agencies won’t pay for.
Regardless of whether voters approve the referendum, Highland Beach is committed to installing lighted crosswalks and has authorized funding for those improvements, which FDOT allows, Miller said.
Currently, members of FDOT’s design team and traffic operations team are developing criteria for handling requests from communities that want to add or enhance crosswalks.
The goal? Find what features work best for what locations.
Drainage is another concern for many communities along A1A. Miller said the department designs roads to meet conditions with expectations of how quickly a road should drain.
The department’s criteria allow a certain portion of the roadway to have standing water for as long as 48 hours. But if the water stands for too long or involves more road, FDOT will develop and implement a plan to solve the issue.
One issue that can affect drainage — and bicycle and pedestrian safety — is vegetation or permanent structures such as walls in the FDOT’s right of way.
Along some stretches, landscaping and decorative features come right up to the white line on the road’s edge, leaving little or no shoulder. With nowhere to go, water puddles on the roadway.
In most cases, the department remains flexible when it comes to objects in the right of way, but will likely remove obstructions during the course of a project like the one that could take place in Highland Beach.
SAFE’s Smith says some local municipalities, such as Delray Beach, are taking a proactive approach to encroachment during development reviews.
“It’s the responsibility of municipalities’ permitting department to prevent future encroachment in the right of way,” he said.
As South Florida continues to grow, there could be more local initiatives on A1A coordinated with FDOT to improve safety.
For the most part, however, the notion of A1A as a relaxing beachside walk, bicycle ride, or drive will not be disturbed.