JTA Responds to Skyway Criticism

March 21, 2011 56 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Facing increased scrutiny from mayoral candidates and the public, JTA releases a statement explaining the current state of the Skyway and welcomes discussion about where to go from here.


Why Was the Skyway Constructed?

The Skyway was one of a handful of demonstration people-mover systems awarded substantial grant funding by the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) in 1985. Funded by FTA, Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), City of Jacksonville (COJ) and JTA, the total cost of design, construction, vehicles and equipment was approximately $186 million.

Designed by JTA in concert with the city’s master planning of Jacksonville’s downtown core, the Skyway would provide the desired circulation system supportive of a pedestrian friendly urban center. The city’s master plan for downtown at that time was to use the Skyway and other transit modes to link downtown visitors, satellite parking lots and the downtown core. This vision included limited street parking for local businesses and cessation of parking garage construction in the downtown core. The Skyway parking lots alone provide more than 3,000 spaces outside of the downtown core.

Over the years, there has been a major change in downtown core parking policies, as well as a decline in the downtown core employment and lack of development of downtown residential projects. In the mid-eighties the city had projected that 100,000 people would be working in the downtown area by 1990. Today, only about 25,000 people work in the urban core, while downtown office vacancies are over 25percent.  As a consequence of these and other factors, the Skyway has not met its original ridership expectations, leading periodically to calls to terminate Skyway operations.

The Skyway is a major infrastructure investment in our community and careful thought about its future is clearly warranted. JTA welcomes a full and open dialogue, exploring the future of the Skyway and whether the system can play an important role in the much-needed revitalization of downtown Jacksonville.

What are the Benefits of the Skyway?

While it is difficult to evaluate the Skyway in the absence of a comprehensive downtown strategy, certain advantages it offers can be examined and discussed. The elevated structure for the Skyway has the advantage of avoiding vehicular and pedestrian conflicts; however, the fixed guideway nature of the system is “rigid,” making it expensive to adjust to changing circumstances, such as the migration of employment clusters or the development and movement of cultural centers. To address the latter concerns, JTA’s downtown trolley system has been designed to provide transit to areas not directly served by the Skyway.

The Skyway does not reach our urban neighborhoods and does not reach the emerging Riverside business district or the city’s sports complex, which means the ultimate potential of the system has not been realized. These factors compound the noted inconsistency in the city’s downtown parking policy and the steep decline in the downtown workforce and lack of residential population.

What the Skyway does offer is connectivity between the Northbank and Southbank. Because it spans the St. Johns River, the Skyway unites the two areas, making the Southbank an extension of downtown rather than an area "across the river. “In other words, the Skyway’s failure to meet expectations is driven by a combination of factors. Given these advantages and disadvantages does the Skyway have a role to play in the future of downtown?

Community visioning efforts like Reality Check in Northeast Florida, One Bay in Tampa, and How Shall We Grow? in Central Florida all conclude that our current development patterns cannot continue if we are to maintain reasonable mobility and continue to grow while maintaining our quality of life. We must encourage a greater diversity of communities and more compact mixed use and transit oriented development if we are to accommodate the expected growth over the next 50 years. It is imperative that public transportation exist and be strongly tied to our land-use vision for North Florida.

What is JTA Doing to Make the Skyway More Effective?

JTA is pursuing the overall vision of the Skyway to conform to its strengths, which includes elimination of traditional bus traffic in the downtown core by terminating bus routes at the Skyway stations. This will improve pedestrian conditions in the downtown core. In addition, JTA is continuing to pursue transit oriented development at or near Skyway stations. Planned additional development at the Kings Avenue Parking Garage is on hold pending completion of FDOT’s rebuilding of the I-95 Overland Bridge but will start as soon as that project is completed. The planned improvements to serve the residential development in Brooklyn adjacent to the Skyway Operations Center are also on hold due to the downturn in the market; however, that land remains well-positioned for residential development when the market rebounds. Other developable parcels remain along the guideway in the vicinity of stations such as the former JEA Southside Generating Station site and LaVilla. City policies to encourage infill development will increase Skyway ridership.

What are the Costs to Shut Down the Skyway?

Failure to operate (or dismantling) the Skyway is a default under the original grant agreement with FTA. JTA would be required to repay the federal and state government an amount equal to the remaining undepreciated amount of the federal and state grant funding. The final repayment amount would be subject to the determination of FTA, but JTA estimates the amount at approximately $70 million. Some have suggested JTA could seek a waiver from FTA to avoid repaying this amount. JTA believes this would be likely to fail: New Jersey Transit Authority, for example, terminated a federally-funded project, and FTA issued a demand letter ordering the repayment of $271 million within 30 days. Closer to home, when the South Florida Regional Transit Authority indicated that it was reducing service on the Tri-Rail system, FTA stated that it “may demand all federal funds that have been provided to support the project be returned.”

In addition to a high likelihood of required repayment of grant funds, JTA believes that a default under the grant agreement would jeopardize future discretionary federal funding for transportation in Jacksonville. Over the last eight years, JTA has secured almost $160 million in federal-aid discretionary grants for Jacksonville. On an annual basis, these discretionary grants are approximately $20 million. In addition, permanently shutting down the Skyway also would require demolition of the system which would require local funding.

How Much Does the Skyway Cost to Operate?

JTA has seen a variety of outside assertions concerning the operating costs of the Skyway. In fact, the Skyway net operating cost for FY2010 was $3.275 million, a 13.6 percent cost reduction since FY 2008. If JTA were to shut down the Skyway, however, not all of this amount would be saved. The costs of returning traditional bus routes to downtown would be incurred, as well as increased travel time on all impacted routes. These factors, coupled with the FTA concerns, reinforce the JTA position that shutting down the Skyway is not a step to be taken lightly and not until other alternatives have been fully explored.

Almost all transportation (including roads) is subsidized in America. This issue goes beyond the scope of this paper, but JTA notes that public transportation provides a number of important benefits.  Public transportation connects transit-dependent workers to their jobs. This is beneficial to the rider, the employer and the general public. As cities grow and become more congested, mass transit is an important option to roadway expansion which becomes more costly and intrusive to the community at large. Increasing gas prices and compliance with federal air quality requirements also demand a viable public transportation system. There simply is no successful major city in America that does not have a substantial public transportation system.

Where Does the Skyway Go From Here?

The integration of the downtown trolley system and the redesigned bus system have produced a better utilized Skyway and reduced bus operating costs in the current period.  In the future, the Skyway will be an important part of a complete multimodal system. Congressman John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently commented to the Florida Statewide Passenger Rail Commission on the potential for the Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center (JRTC) to connect the Skyway with other transportation modes, specifically the potential connection with future commuter rail. Chairman Mica also noted the Skyway was 30 years ahead of its time.

Congressman Mica is probably correct, and the Miami Metromover is a case in point. For the first 20 years of its operations, the system was subjected to a considerable amount of criticism. Now, it is considered a significant transit success story – 25 years after it was built. It is an essential part of the region’s overall transit system that includes heavy rail (Metrorail), commuter rail (Tri-Rail) and possibly high speed rail in the future. Similarly, the Portland Streetcar is viewed as a highly successful circulator system. Portland includes a significant fare-free zone; fare collection is not viewed as a key indicator of success because it helps support the overall transit system.

JTA understands the frustration with the Skyway system, and generally shares in those frustrations. Careful consideration should be paid to the costs and benefits of all Skyway alternatives. Re-positioning the Skyway to serve as a catalyst for continued downtown revitalization certainly warrants consideration if Jacksonville is serious about its urban core.  JTA acknowledges the challenges of its position, and welcomes the public debate and input.

Original Document: http://www.jtafla.com/images/skyway/SkywayWhitePaper20110303.pdf