There’s been a few conflicting messages and a few inaccuracies out of Palm Coast government lately regarding the Whiteview narrowing project–the city’s plan to take Whiteview’s westernmost segment’s four lanes down to two, create walking paths and add turning lanes to reduce risks on a road that’s claimed three lives since 2012.
But the plan has not been scrubbed. It’s on pause, but still part of the city’s mid-range plan. It’s on pause now not because council members are grumbling, though the pause is convenient in that regard, but because the city has no choice. The project’s $4 million cost depends on state Department of Transportation funding, which may not happen for several years yet–“a minimum likely of three years,” in City Manager Matt Morton’s words, and very likely longer than that: if the city is getting state dollars, it’s hoping they’re directed at the four-laning of Old Kings Road, a higher priority than Whiteview’s humbling.
In essence, the project is planned for, but out of the city’s hands for now. And absent a third vote to scrub it altogether and that hasn’t materialized, city council members’ objections have little or nothing to do with the project’s direction.
The inaccuracies are the work of two council members, both of whom are more or less opposed to narrowing Whiteview: Jack Howell (more) and Eddie Branquinho (less). Howell claims that if anything, there may be a four-laning of Whiteview all the way to Old Kings Road. But no such plan is on any drawing board or near a drawing board.
“It was not the highway that was the issue, not whatsoever, and you can’t fix stupid, which are the drivers that rear-end each other on that road,” Howell said, an insensitive and inaccurate reference to the three fatalities, only one of which was caused by a rear-ending (and the victim was not at fault). He was speaking to some 50 people gathered at a recent Palm Coast Democratic Club meeting focused on the separation of church and state.
“That’s the bottom line,” Howell went on, “so at least for the time being that’s going to be held off, and if anything it’ll probably turn out to be a four-lane all the way out to Old Kings Road before this is over. They’re laying water lines right now out to Old Kings Road. If you go down Old Kings Road you’ll see they’re working right there on 95.” The two projects are not connected. Howell again asserted that the project was on hold in a brief interview Wednesday, and that he was working toward scrubbing it altogether.
Branquinho says the city “would have to come up with $400,000” for the project if the Department of Transportation were to pick up the rest of the tab. In fact, the city has already spent $583,685, just for the design, which is “95 percent complete,” according to a city spokesman. The cost doesn’t include in-house labor for landscape design. If the design gathers dust for a few years, the city will have to come up with more design money should the transportation department provide a grant, just to ensure that the design is up to date. (In the 2018 fiscal year, Palm Coast had appropriated $1.7 million out of transportation impact fees to the Whiteview project.)
“As that project is right now I would vote no on that project,” Branquinho said at a council meeting last week. “Even though that’s a $4 million project, basically the city would have come up only with $400,000. Ten percent of that, that’s the part of the city would pay. At the end if that’s going to save one life, it’s worth the $400,000 but then again, the way it is at this point I would vote no.” He did not explain why.
The project is counter-intuitive: why would the city reduce four lanes to two anywhere, when ITT designed its major arteries, including two-lane arteries, for growth and four-laning. But city officials insist that Whiteview will not be generating the sort of traffic that would warrant four-laning–not in the near future, not in the long term, either.
The reason: unlike Royal Palm Parkway, which could eventually be four-laned between U.S. 1 and Belle Terre, “None of the DRI’s connect to Whiteview,” Michael Schottey, the city’s spokesman, said today, referring to approved mega-developments called Developments of Regional Impact. That’s strictly true: two massive DRIs the city approved last decade, neither of which has produced a single house yet–Neoga Lakes, with a planned 7,000 homes, and Old Brick Township, 5,000 homes–are west of U.S. 1 rather than abutting it. But Neoga Lakes sprawls parallel to U.S. 1, north and south of Whiteview, and traffic patterns from it to U.S. 1 are obviously not set yet. That future is uncertain.
Carl Cote, the construction manager who’s been the city’s point man on the project, says the plan has evolved over time. For instance, when it was presented to residents around Whiteview at a public meeting in January 2018, one of its options was to transform two lanes in one direction into a green, linear park-like area, while splitting the two lanes in the other direction between east and west. But residents wanted to keep the median now in place. So that’s remained in the new design, with single lanes on either side.
The plan calls for dedicated left-turn lanes, the absence of which caused the January 2015 crash that took the life of 22-year-old Elisa Marie Homen, a young mother, who was waiting to make a left turn onto Ravenwood Drive. Then 19-year-old Brian Szmitko rear-ended her, pushing her in the path of a school bus. The impact with the school bus killed her. She had done nothing wrong.
In 2014, Robert Cronin, 62, was speeding in early morning, going 80 in a 45, when he lost control in the four-lane zone and struck a tree. The impact killed him. The cause could not be attributed to the road. And in 2012, Pedro Riera, 48, lost his life when a 21-year-old driver pulled out from a stop sign at Rolling Sands Drive to make a left onto Whiteview, right after another car made a right onto Rolling Sands, from the right lane on White View. The 21 year old never saw Riera in the left lane. Riera struck the car and died.
“Creating left turn lanes was one of the big things,” Cote said, “and up by Rolling Sands, three roads are closely spaced, we’re restricting some of that movement and creating a dedicated left out to head west out of rolling sands.” That would be in direct response to the 2012 crash.
But all of it depends on state transportation department money, though as the city navigates council members’ reactions, it can also be prone to somewhat conflicting messages.
“With a lot of the comments we’ve heard, absolutely you need to just pause to go back, look at the design and have some conversations around that and review,” Morton, the city manager, said in response to Branquinho’s and Howell’s stances last week, “use that opportunity now just to make sure we understand the project, that its initial intentions are still validated and warranted as far as what we thought we were getting.”
The statement suggested more than a pause, raising questions about whether the project was warranted. (The council member’s chief objections are financial.) But Schottey, the spokesperson, encapsulated in almost Clintonian language the conflicting signals when he described where the project stands at the moment: “It’s not officially on hold or officially moving forward,” he said, “it’s still just in the future, it’s on the list of projects we want to do.”
Just not yet: as Cote acknowledged, if the transportation department were to provide the $4 million for the project in the near term, with Old Kings Road’s widening still not completed, “that’s something we definitely would have conversations about,” Cote said. It’s happened in the past, he noted, with the transportation department ranking one project higher than another, in reverse of city priorities, and the city has asked that the money be re-allocated accordingly.
So it’s in the state’s hands more than Palm Coast’s at this point. Meanwhile, Schottey said, “one council member and one or two residents writing in are not going to drive the whole project.”