By Michele Dargan, special for Civic Association News. Director of Public Safety Kirk Blouin wants residents to know that his department – along with other federal, state and local agencies – are working diligently to solve traffic gridlock and other issues arising out of President Donald Trump’s visits to Palm Beach
Photo: Kirk Blouin, Town of Palm Beach Director of Public Safety
President Trump has spent the past three weekends at the Mar-A-Lago Club, now known as the Winter White House. Each weekend has gone smoother in terms of clearing up traffic problems stemming from road closures around Mar-A-Lago, Mr. Blouinsaid.
“We’ve put a lot of work in and are taking this very seriously,” he said. “We’re giving our best effort to help the community and ease the traffic. We’ve expended a lot of resources and planning surrounding other aspects of having President Trump in town, like the protesters. But the things that concern people the most are things that impact their daily lives, like the traffic. I’ve received more complaints about traffic than I think I have in my entire career here and we’re doing the best we can to mitigate these problems.”
Road Closures, Traffic and Flight Paths
Mr. Blouin said that he has received many complaints about road closures on Ocean Boulevard near Mar-A-Lago and the flight paths being diverted to the north end of Palm Beach during President Trump’s visit.
“Two things are beyond my control – the road closures in and around Mar-A-Lago and the flight paths,” he said. “The road closures – the timing and length – are mandated by the Secret Service. I’ve received a lot of calls from residents who don’t like the flight path being diverted over the northern part of Palm Beach. I believe that’s controlled and regulated by the FAA. I have no control over that.
“During the motorcade, all of Southern Boulevard gets shut down,” Mr. Blouin continued. “Prior to President Trump’s arrival, once they do a security sweep of Mar-a-Lago, they shut down the roads in and around Mar-A-Lago, so there’s no way to travel south through town on South Ocean Boulevard because the Secret Service won’t allow it.
“When we talk about severe traffic congestion, it’s a relatively small period of time from 2:30 to 4:30 on Fridays,” he said. “The reason why is that we strongly recommended to landscapers, contractors and service personnel to be off the island by 3 p.m. and we also enacted that same plan for town employees. We’ve adjusted their hours to a 14-hour day so some avoid coming in at all on Fridays and others are off the island by 3 p.m.
“The most efficient route for our residents to exit the Town of Palm Beach is to take County Road to Royal Palm Way and take the Royal Palm Bridge off the island,” he said. “The traffic moves faster and there’s a more efficient flow. The design on the North Bridge is not the best and there’s only one lane of traffic. As we’re working our way through this, the drivers will change their driving patterns to avoid the severe congestion.
“We’ve learned something from each weekend. The first weekend, we had Southern Boulevard closed down and the North Bridge with one lane functional and it’s not efficiently designed to handle large volumes of traffic. The best way to get off the island was Royal Palm Way and when you got off of the bridge on the West Palm Beach side, Lakeview Avenue was bumper to bumper. There was no place to push traffic. We experienced this incredible gridlock that I’ve never seen at that level before. You have the perfect storm going on with all the construction, limited ways to enter and exit the town and a sitting president in town with additional closed roadways.
“The second week we did a lot more planning and knew what to expect. We got a greater level of cooperation from the DOT in Palm Beach County. They assigned some engineers to monitor the traffic from their office. They can control the intersections by flipping switches in their office and were able to move traffic off Lakeview Avenue more efficiently, which gave us the opportunity to move traffic off the island faster.
We also solicited help from the Coast Guard and got them to agree to one opening per hour from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. I’m going to request further restrictions, but we have no control over whether they grant it or not. We improved our response the second week.
“Last Friday was clearly our best effort to date. We were actively managing the traffic instead of the traffic managing us. There was a large deployment of resources and that does create staffing challenges for a relatively small department, but we’re looking for bigger, longer-term solutions.
“We’ve requested assistance from West Palm Beach Police Department, but they told us they don’t have the resources. They’re too busy answering calls to devote to the intersections on the West Palm Beach side of our traffic equation.
“We’re looking into installing new technology that would allow us to control the traffic lights from the police department,” he said. “Another thing that we’ve improved is that we’re more aggressive in notifying the public and keeping the public informed.”
Mr. Blouin encourages residents to sign up for email and text message alerts from the town, which will notify them of any road closures. To do so, visit townofpalmbeach.com and click on alerts and emergencies.
Addressing Medical Emergencies
Mr. Blouin said they have a plan in place containing three ways to get a patient with a health issue off the island. These plans were implemented during the closure of the North Bridge and have been successful in addressing any and all medical emergencies, he said.
“Our ‘ace in the hole’ is always Trauma Hawk. We have an agreement with the Health Care District that they will respond anytime we request their assistance. If we have trouble transporting someone through traditional means because of traffic, Trauma Hawk will come here and pick up the patient and deliver that person to the hospital. It’s fast, about a 5-minute average response time.
“The second way is when the fire department is dispatched to a medical call, we immediately call the bridge tender and keep the bridge in lock-down position. We contact the county’s traffic control center and they’re able to manually control the traffic lights on the West Palm Beach side by remote access to keep the lights green. They’ll flush out all that traffic so we don’t experience any gridlock. Once we pick up that patient, we’ve got the bridge locked down, the traffic control center keeping that artery clear for us and the police officers moving traffic along at the intersection. Inside the rescue vehicle is a device called Opticom. It operates like a remote-control and gives the rescue truck a green light as it approaches an intersection.
“The third way (employing strategies from the second option) is that we take over the opposite side of the roadway to exit the town. We stop all traffic on the West Palm Beach side going east over the bridge, flush out all the traffic of the east bound lanes on the bridge and on Royal Palm Way. Then we have the rescue vehicle proceed west in the east bound lanes because there’s no vehicles there. Once we get to Flagler Drive, there’s no traffic congestion and we can proceed right to the hospital.”
“We do 1,100 transports each year and only seven percent of those are considered highly critical and we’ll use one of those three ways that I described. We’re not going to Trauma Hawk someone if it’s a non-critical call.”
Dealing with Protesters
“Protesters are allowed on the sidewalks and they’re allowed in the public areas, they just can’t block anyone’s path,” he said. “These are constitutional rights granted by the First Amendment and these are very strong protections. I have been actively meeting with the organizers so that we can come to some sort of an agreement. We want to keep those lines of communication open and make sure they know the rules in order to keep everyone safe and mitigate the impact on our residents.
“When President Trump is not in residence, protesters can proceed on foot along the side of the road. They can’t go on Mar-A-Lago’s property, because it is private property. When the president is in residence, the Secret Service has designated a safe area. That safe area is that they cannot proceed (south) on the street side or beach side from (the intersection of) South Ocean Boulevard and County Road. Coming east over the Southern Boulevard Bridge, they can’t proceed further east than Bingham Island (Southern Boulevard Causeway).
“For the most part, they have been well-behaved and orderly. There was a fringe group of protesters that were intent on causing disruption. There were no arrests and that was our goal. From that perspective, things went very well. There was some concern from law enforcement - both from West Palm Beach and in the town - that these protesters were walking through primarily residential areas in the dark and sometimes onto the roadways, which posed a very dangerous situation. I did express that to some of the organizers and they tried to control it the best they could by policing their own. But there’s only so much you can do to control a crowd. I did tell them that I was surprised no one got hurt, because you had cars and people traversing a dark roadway at the same time. I think the organizers are going to try and exercise more control. There’s an improved level of communication between the organizers and the police department, so some of these things will be better planned out in the future.”
A Helipad at Mar-A-Lago
“It doesn’t change the road closure in and around Mar-A-Lago if there’s a helipad,” Mr. Blouin said. “That road closure will remain. Even if a helipad is approved and built, that doesn’t necessarily mean he will travel by helicopter. It’s likely he will still travel by traditional motorcade and the helipad would just be used if Mar-A-Lago were to come under attack and the president was under attack. It may provide the best or only alternative to extricate the president from the Town of Palm Beach, but those questions are for the federal government.”
Communication with Secret Service
“Communication with the Secret Service has been great,” he said. We have an excellent relationship with Secret Service and we are kept informed of things in a timely manner. We did have a little communication breakdown a few weeks ago with the Secret Service and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office when they shut down the road earlier than they were supposed to, but we have ironed out those problems.”
Boaters, Walkers and Runners Near Mar-A-Lago
“This has been a learning process for everyone, including the Secret Service and those in charge who run the detail here because of the additional logistical problems that Mar-A-Lago presents.” Mr. Blouin said. “It does present some challenges because of its location and that it’s surrounded by water on both sides – the ocean on the front and the Intracoastal on the back and the fact that it’s not a residence but a club. Early on, some boaters who live near Mar-a Lago were stopped and told they could leave, but they couldn’t come back. We’ve addressed those issues with the Secret Service and came to an agreement that the residents who can be identified - they need to present a legitimate government identification and their vessel may be swept or screened - would be allowed to go to and from their residence.
“When President Trump is in residence – and this is mandated by the Secret Service - there will be no traffic in and around Mar-A-Lago, whether it be foot, bicycle or vehicle. When the president is not in residence, then there are no restrictions on the roadways.”
How officials plan to curb traffic during President Trump’s arrival