What’s causing all the long backups at I-95 exits at Okeechobee Blvd.?

Posted on January 20, 2016

By Tony Doris

Rush hour is bad enough, but motorists trying to exit Interstate 95 at Okeechobee Boulevard east to West Palm Beach are experiencing even longer delays these days.

Southbound traffic backed up so far Tuesday that people trying to get on the interstate one exit back, at Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, were hard-pressed to pierce the wall of waiting cars to get into the travel lanes. The northbound exit ramp at Okeechobee also has been backing up.

That’s been happening more and more lately — different days, same location, same bottlenecks. This despite the fact that the exit ramps are plenty long and there are lots of lanes, as drivers come up toward the boulevard.

What’s causing the delays?

County Engineer George Webb has one explanation: trains.

“Getting into the downtown for everyone was difficult this morning it appears,” he acknowledged Tuesday. “We do see backups almost every morning on Okeechobee extending past this ramp — caused by the Tri-Rail and Amtrak trains. People on the off-ramp can’t get off since Okeechobee is ‘full,’” he said in an email.

Tri-Rail trains cross Okeechobee roughly twice every half-hour during morning and afternoon rush hours, one northbound and one southbound.

“No plans are in the works to do anything,” Webb says. It’s all controlled by the trains at the CSX rail crossing of Okeechobee, at Tamarind and Parker avenues.

“Something has changed,” commuter Leslie Downs said Wednesday in an email.

“I never used to get stopped by the trains. I am thinking they changed sometime after Jan. 1. … It used to take 10 minutes to get from 95 into work, and now it can be up to 30 minutes.”

Considering that the trains have been crossing that intersection for years, there’s another likely culprit for the uptick in traffic: construction of the Convention Center garage has shrunk the center’s surface lot, so cars have been redirected elsewhere.

An electronic signboard at the center parking lot entrance on eastbound Okeechobee Tuesday, a police car with flashing lights parked beside it, instructed motorists: “Convention Center lot closed, use CityPlace garages.”

That means drivers who in the right lane learned they had one or two blocks to cross two busy lanes to get into a left-turn lane toward CityPlace. Never mind the additional confusion of the Restoration Hardware construction in the Okeechobee median in front of CityPlace, and of the final rush to finish the Convention Center hotel, both on the city’s busiest boulevard, downtown’s most direct link to the interstate.

Mayor Jeri Muoio will get her own firsthand look at the problem soon. Her annual State of the City address is scheduled for 7 a.m. Friday — at the Convention Center.

County Administrator Verdenia Baker said Wednesday she wasn’t aware of the backups on I-95 but said traffic downtown and elsewhere in the city has been heavy lately for multiple reasons. On Tuesday, it took her 45 minutes to get from Dixie Highway to I-95 via Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, a 3-mile trip that normally takes seven or eight minutes.

Downtown office buildings are full, tourist season is in full swing and there’s construction traffic, she said.

“Maybe we need to look at how we handle the lights, the flow of traffic and how we move things a bit more,” Baker said. “I don’t think it’s one thing. It’s just a combination of things and the season.”

City Administrator Jeff Green says sporadic closings of the Flagler Memorial Bridge during its reconstruction also contribute to the mess. The closings require adjusting the traffic signals in the area to help cars work their way around the area, but the timing is never perfect, he says.

“Our engineers, the Florida Department of Transportation and the county are all looking at it,” Green says of the Okeechobee snarl. “It’s an issue.”

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