I attended this hearing out of an interest in process. This road project has been one of the most highly publicized in recent memory and certainly the most lobbied. All sides have invested much in making their case and pushing for or against this right-of-way. Buses were chartered to maximize capacity and, thus, the stage was set.
The theater began with a rather attractive presentation by Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) engineers that would explain the design and stages of the planned project. Around 30 engineers, consultants and staff were on hand to answer questions.
It was apparent — down to the logo design for the project and the embroidered button-down shirts — that no expense was
spared for the presentation. The professionals were extremely generous with their time and therefore I took full advantage. I wanted to understand this process. Planning roads takes time and as time passes new information becomes available. The study necessary to assess every aspect of the road’s affect on the area was made available.
Along the back tables in the presentation hall were numerous volumes of each particular study. Alternatives to the proposed road, noise studies, environmental assessment and a cultural resource assessment survey were among the many volumes I found remarkable. I wanted to understand every factor that relates to another for a road project — yet I became fascinated by the theater before me.
No such drama
There is another road expansion project planned by FDOT with considerable impact on a community with no such drama. This is the road expansion project of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Australian Avenue in Riviera Beach. It threatens to take a two-lane road to seven lanes along MLK, cut off a community from emergency vehicle access and risk public safety for school children and the elderly who live nearby.
This road project also threatens to encroach on a neighborhood cemetery that historically was the only place where African Americans could be buried in the area in a community that was the only place African American war heroes could build their homes once they returned from duty. But no shirts. No paddle fans. No chartered buses.
The public meeting for the MLK project had no PowerPoint presentation or open dialog under the watchful eye of local television stations. There was a box, in the corner, and 5-by-7 index cards to express your opinion. Most residents left more confused than when they arrived and had no real idea about how the project would impact their home, specifically, and their community, as a whole, until days or weeks later in speaking to neighbors, or when they saw the orange survey markers running down the Australian Avenue frontage of the cemetery.
I have attended many public meetings and have to say none were quite like State Road 7. Contrary to what many would have everyone believe, there was a great number of opponents who lived within the downtown neighborhood communities of West Palm Beach who were neither affluent nor residents of the Ibis gated community. Many were genuinely concerned about the water crisis this area faces and the impact of this road construction. There were also some members of the western communities who believe this process missed the opportunity to seek alternative solutions.
Many believed this road would enhance the quality of life in their community — in contrast to the MLK road project.
Among the chartered buses from all sides, t-shirts, and paddle fans, there were moments when civility was lost, along with a sense that democracy should not require such a marketing campaign. It was clear that these communities are divided in ways that the construction of State Road 7 will never bridge. Ironically, in Riviera Beach, the construction of the road serves only to divide and separate a community.
All proposed road projects deserve such a thorough consideration of impact as the State Road 710. More work including a complete environmental assessment needs to be done regarding the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard project to ensure that the preservation of the Riviera Beach Heights community and its residents be afforded the same consideration.
Maria Cole has spent her career as a health care professional and is dedicated to environmental and social justice, including access to quality health care. She may be reached at email@example.com.
Photo: Maria Cole