By Rich Pollack
Could Highland Beach have designated bike lanes and lighted crosswalks along State Road A1A in the not-too-distant future?
Would it be possible and financially feasible to have underground utility lines instead of unsightly power poles and wires along the roadway, as well as improved drainage facilities to minimize street flooding?
These questions and many more related to improvements along A1A are expected to be addressed in a $147,000 “Complete Streets” study the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council is conducting for the town.
Focused on providing design plans for a multitude of improvements along the roadway as well as cost estimates, the study is being fast-tracked to meet several deadlines.
Commissioners and representatives from the planning council are hoping to have enough information available in time to bring plans before voters in March during the municipal elections and in time to commit to improvements by a mid-March state deadline.
This month, residents will have a chance to hear more about the project — and have some say in how it is developed — during a public design workshop set for 6 p.m. Dec. 5 at the Highland Beach Public Library.
“This is an opportunity for the community to address many of the issues residents have expressed concerns about through public forums,” Town Manager Marshall Labadie said. “Those include crosswalks, flooding, sidewalk improvements and bike lanes.”
The workshop will include an opening presentation, a discussion of opportunities and challenges and “table sessions” with facilitators designed to generate ideas, according to a proposal Kim DeLaney, director of strategic development and policy for the planning council, presented to the town.
“We’re asking people to sit at a table and tell us how they want the corridor to look,” DeLaney said during one of several presentations she made to town commissioners.
The driving force behind the discussion of major improvements to A1A throughout the town is a Florida Department of Transportation “Three R” project that essentially includes repaving the roadway through the 3 miles of Highland Beach.
A five-year process, the project includes refurbishing, replacement and repair along A1A and is an opportunity for the town to ask for any improvements residents would like to see along the roadway.
Because the state has overall authority for the roadway and final say for any improvements, any plans presented by the town would require FDOT approval.
In the past, the state has been slow to grant the town permission to make changes, especially in the area of crosswalk improvements, but Labadie said he recently met with Gerry O’Reilly, who oversees the region for FDOT, and came away optimistic.
“They were not only very welcoming to us, but they were also welcoming to the ideas we were presenting,” Labadie said.
Labadie said the town hopes to implement some interim crosswalk improvements, including improved signage and possible pedestrian-activated signals.
“FDOT said they are willing to work with us,” he said.
How much of the funding for the overall improvements for the project will come from the state and how much will come from the town is still to be worked out, but should residents approve all or part of the project, chances are they will see an impact on their municipal taxes, Labadie said.
He said the town will probably need to borrow money to implement the improvements and that it is exploring financing options.
“At the end of the day, it will likely cost residents,” he said.
DeLaney said that through the study, her organization will present the town with costs of individual items and present the Town Commission with “a range of options.”
How the project will be presented to residents in the referendum is still up in the air, but Labadie said the commission appears to be willing to break the overall project into logical categories, which are likely to be the streetscape project, drainage improvements and underground utilities.
Although commissioners have shown support for developing plans, some want to be sure the town is following the wishes of its residents and is being fiscally responsible.
“This really depends on what the town wants,” Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman said. “The worst-case scenario is that we can’t come to a consensus as a community and everything goes to hell in a handbasket.”
Commissioner Elyse Riesa said she is concerned that the overall project could be a drain on town finances.
“I’m not in favor of going into debt to where we don’t have funds to do anything but work on the road,” she said. “If we do, we might as well be known as Highland Road instead of Highland Beach.”