A solution looking for a problem – the Pioneer Plaza roundabout

Jesse Bailey is is this week's featured blogger from the Strong Towns Network. Jesse Bailey is an advocate for traditional, walkable neighborhoods residing in West Palm Beach, Florida. He's a data junkie and CPA working as an analyst at a multifamily real estate company. He enjoys Florida Gator football, but not so much this season.


West Palm Beach city commissioners have instructed the traffic department to come up with a plan for improvement to the Pioneer Plaza roundabout, and held a public meeting with city staff on the 23rd to present the newest iteration, which I attended along with representatives from the Norton Museum of Art.

When the so-called improvement looks strikingly similar in the before and after photos, some questions need to be asked.  Is this roundabout at the end of its useful life, necessitating a capital replacement? If not, what’s the problem with the existing design and what is the objective of a redesign?

According to the city traffic engineers, the redesign is necessary due to safety issues. Since safety is such a concern, you’d expect the data to make the case for a redesign. We should be seeing stories about serious accidents at this roundabout as well as crash statistics that show its dangerous nature.  In fact, looking at City of WPB Police Department crash statistics, I found one accident year to date, involving a driver who sneezed and sideswiped a concrete bollard. The accident only involved the driver and she was not seriously injured. I searched the Palm Beach Post archives going back to 2006, searching for keywords with “Pioneer Plaza” or “traffic circle/roundabout” in West Palm Beach. I found not a single report of a crash at this roundabout. No question bollards are knocked over, and some incidents go unreported. But the data does not show this is a dangerous intersection; in reality, it is likely one of the safer intersections in the city.

When pressed about the safety issues, city officials pointed to the concrete bollards that are getting knocked over, and insisted that the roundabout must be redesigned to meet the standard. So it seems we have not a safety problem for the people who use this roundabout, but a concrete bollard public safety crisis. What’s the proposed solution to keep the bollards safe?  Spend $550,000 to tear out the beautiful brick pavers, substitute stamped concrete fake brick, and widen the travel lanes to 16′ from the current 13′.

It’s important to emphasize that this roundabout is not at the end of its useful life. Not once in the public meeting did officials make the argument that it needs capital replacement. This intersection sees a much lower volume of traffic than the shared space in front of the Centennial Fountain on Clematis, and that area is holding up just fine.

Is this really a wise use of public funds? Could there possibly be a simpler and much cheaper fix? From speaking to the most affected neighbor, the representatives of the Norton Museum of Art, they would rather keep the current configuration and just clean up and maintain what is already there, and much prefer it to the new proposal.

I can think of many ways the city could use this money more wisely than fixing what isn’t broken.

As an aside, this is also an opportunity to think about the configuration of Olive throughout the city. Why are these bollards getting hit in the first place? Here’s a hypothesis: Are large trucks and semis hitting the bollards, thinking this local street is still a through street? I ask this because I had so much trouble (and conflicting answers) about which entity controls Olive through downtown that I tweeted to FDOT Secretary Prasad, who to his credit replied promptly and confirmed local ownership of Olive.

Olive Avenue through downtown was to be changed to two way operation in the 1994 DMP, but it never happened; however, the City of WPB did manage to gain control of Olive and Dixie, giving up Quadrille to FDOT. Could maps that truck companies use still designate Olive as a through road, rather than a local street? I’ve seen maps online that still show Dixie/Olive as a state road.  And the fact Olive is two lane, one way through downtown incentivizes large trucks to use it through downtown, and perhaps at this intersection because it offers easy access to Olive through downtown.

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