On Tuesday evening, at the request of Executive Director Michael Blaylock, Metro Jacksonville representatives met with JTA officials to openly discuss the future of mass transit in Jacksonville.
According to Michael Blaylock, the purpose of the meeting was to attempt to work together and to clear the air about what each side is bringing to the table.
Metro Jacksonville Notes:
JTA officials believed that our debate has been mainly a Rail vs. BRT issue.
However, this is not completely true. Metro Jacksonville endorses all modes of mass transit, as long as it is determined that a mode works best for a specific corridor. However, we do remain opposed to the construction of a dedicated busway system that could cost five times as much as commuter rail with routes paralleling existing rail corridors.
Even bus rapid transit advocacy website www.goBRT.org admits that building dedicated busways can carry a high price tag. Jacksonville should not spend of dime of the $100 million set aside for mass transit in the Better Jacksonville Plan until it has been determined how to most effectively use the money. This can not be done without developing a long term integrated transit vision.
JTA plans to slow down the progress of their BRT plans to let the Commuter Rail and Streetcar studies catch up
This is an important point because once these new studies are complete, some of the proposed dedicated busways may not be needed. JTA officials acknowledged that for the past eight years they have moved forward with the BRT plan due to decisions that were made in the 1990's. If JTA actually intends on slowing BRT until an integrated vision can be developed, we believe they need to mention this to the local media, general public, and city officials.
JTA plans to begin a study for Southside Blvd
Michael Blaylock mentioned that JTA is preparing to move forward with a comprehensive mass transit study of Southside Blvd. from Atlantic Blvd. to JTB. This study will determine whether it is feasible for future light rail, BRT, or some other form of mass transit to serve this corridor. While light rail may not be feasible for this non-pedestrian friendly road, finding a way to serve this increasingly congested Southside area is definitely needed.
Overall thoughts and suggestions from Metro Jacksonville:
JTA officials may actually mean well, but to date they have done a poor job of creating a long term vision and selling it to the public. Here are some things JTA should seriously consider in their effort to plan for Jacksonville's mass transit future.
1. Publicly announce the re-evaluation of the current BRT plan.
It's not that people are confused about this plan, it's just a bad plan that needs to be stopped until the rest of the studies that comprise the integrated transportation plan are completed.
Even the new bus rapid transit plan for downtown still contains major negatives factors. While JTA has delayed plans to bring east-west buses into the Northbank core, the system still parallels the skyway on the Southbank. Despite the multi-million dollar investment in a new transit system, Baptist Medical Center, Nemour's Children's Clinic, Aetna Tower and their 9,000+ employees will still have no direct connection with the new BRT line or the Skyway. If we are to invest money on enhancing mass transit options on the Southbank, that new system should at least connect with the Southbank's major destinations, as opposed to serving areas already within a block of existing skyway stations.
2. Develop a comprehensive long term vision.
A major problem with the current BRT plan is that it has been presented as JTA's long term transit solution. There has been very little effort to show how BRT would complement potential rail and streetcar corridors. If you want to win the public over, develop a true integrated long term solution, showing the exact proposed routes of each transit solution. Purchasing right-of-way and jumping through Federal Transit Administration (FTA) hurdles should not take place until a long term integrated vision has been established.
As of right now, only a BRT plan has been developed and that plan parallels rail corridors currently being studied for commuter rail. A long term transit vision should identify actual rail routes to be targeted for mass transit, with busways serving as suburban feeder routes into the rail based trunk line.
The city of Austin, TX developed a comprehensive mass transit plan before moving forward with their Urban commuter rail line (red line). As opposed to having parallel transit corridors, Austin's integrated system uses rapid bus lines (BRT - green), express buses (purple) and regional commuter rail (light blue) to serve areas of the metropolitan area not served by the urban commuter rail line.
3. Think outside the box.
There's still the general feeling within JTA's offices that commuter rail can not provide light rail-like passenger service. There are too many recent examples out there that prove otherwise. Instead of fighting reality, embrace it and consider the CSX "A" line for a starter or demonstration project. As long as the Orlando commuter rail deal continues to move forward, the reduction of traffic on this line increases the viability of commuter rail between Clay County and Downtown. It also eliminates the need to run a parallel BRT corridor through Jacksonville's densest and most pedestrian friendly urban neighborhoods.
4. After BRT is built, forget about converting it to rail.
During the discussion, Mike Miller mentioned that to improve the chances of receiving money from the FTA, we could build BRT and later convert it into rail. This is an expensive process and a complicated extra step that we can avoid completely if an integrated transit plan were developed first. With an integrated plan, we would be able to develop certain segments of the plan without having to spend additional money converting it into another transportation mode in the future.
5. Don't sell your soul to the Feds.
Design Jacksonville's transit plan in a way that enhances our city, not in a way that nets the most money from the FTA. If the FTA does not like it, then we need to come up with creative financing strategies on our own. It has been done before, so the examples are out there.
Metro Jacksonville would like to thank JTA for setting up Tuesday night's meeting. While we are still skeptical of how plans will progress, we look forward to helping create a long term vision for the future of transit in Jacksonville.