Dog Without A Bone – JTA’S Great Greyhound Deception

March 19, 2014 19 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In this editorial, Metro Jacksonville's Bob Mann explains why JTA's proposed Greyhound station should be reconsidered and why Jacksonville may be a code word for Screw the Pooch.

Every time common sense seems to take hold, it seems as if some entity makes an effort to deceive a city and its number one intercity surface transportation carrier into buying into Fantasyland. In order for the proposed Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center (JRTC) to have the passenger and retail appeal desired by its member carriers, we can only hope that intellect and common sense will win the day.
As we enter the final weeks of a marathon arm twisting sales pitch, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) is pulling out all of the stops to drag Greyhound into what may well become the nation’s most dysfunctional transportation center. Actually the so-called Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center, has become a behemoth of a white elephant despite still existing only on paper.

The idea of a “one stop shop” is the primary concept of an intermodal transportation center. Certainly anywhere a transportation center can have all of the carriers under one roof, then that should be the primary goal. This sort of density makes for seamless connections between Greyhound, Trailways, Red Coach, Megabus, La Cubana, Amtrak, city buses, express buses, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), and the Skyway. This creates the critical mass to support ancillary services such as gift and travel shops, restaurants, snack bars and other retail and service outlets.

Unfortunately, the JRTC would fill five major buildings as well as a giant parking garage. The buildings would be scattered across five city blocks bisected by freeway ramps. Necessary we are told, because the Prime Osborn Convention Center (read that the original rail terminal) sits right in the middle. Despite ongoing discussions to relocate the convention center, which would leave a gaping hole in the middle of the JRTC plan.

With Amtrak at the extreme south end of the property, its paltry 200 daily passengers and two trains (4 arrivals and departures) would occupy all 87,000+ square feet of the old Jacksonville Terminal railroad station. Since both trains run southbound back to back in the morning, then follow each other northbound back to back in the evening, we could probably keep the door locked about 20 hours each day without inconveniencing anyone. Such a facility would be unique in that it will have the ability to transport the millennial generation, back through time where they can experience what it was like to travel by train in 1970. An era that except for a ticket agent and a train crew, your footsteps were likely the only thing you'd hear walking through the place.

Blocks away, the JTA announced plans for a new intercity bus terminal with glowing descriptions of buses from a half a dozen companies serving a single point. To connect all of these, planners decided a serpentine, seven block long partially elevated 'concourse' would be built. Simply look up the words, over planned, ridiculous, or dysfunctional, and you'll find a photo of the JRTC.

56 Amtrak trains and 271 Metra commuter trains move through Chicago's Union Station daily, carrying 140,000 passengers. Despite the large numbers, the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA's) plan for a multimodal bus element is a tiny fraction the size of Jacksonville’s proposed transportation center.  Image courtesy of the CTA.

Over the years we've seen the magnificent Jacksonville Terminal Company railroad station go from one of the world’s busiest train stations to an empty ghost. This building, once the largest depot south of Washington, DC, was stripped of its glory, abandoned and trashed. Indeed all of the surrounding LaVilla neighborhood fell victim to a misguided city redevelopment plan. Instead of revitalization, we cleared the neighborhood, its historic red light district, stately mansions, theaters where famous jazz and blues greats played, and a second grand railroad, leaving nothing but fields of desolation. The empty blocks stretch out from Interstate 95 on the west (and beyond where they razed the world’s largest Railway Express Agency station) to the edge of the central business district, licking at the foundation of the current Greyhound station.

We converted the old depot into a far too small convention center, which remains shuttered most of the year. Admittedly the convention center idea might have saved our stately terminal from the wrecking balls that met similar monumental stations in Savannah, Chattanooga, Charlotte, Atlanta and myriad other places. The Skyway had its beginnings at the terminal, now rechristened as the Prime Osborn Convention Center. A 78,000 square foot exhibition hall was added and soon it was discovered the place was too small to even host the regional high school cheerleading competitions. No hotelier was built adjacent to the center and the buildings housing businesses that once surrounded it were leveled within a decade of its opening.

The JTA optimistically stated that the Skyway Express would fill the center’s parking lot with weekday workers, carrying 60,000 passengers a day. The number was later revised to 30,000, then 15,000 and finally around 8,000. The reality of the situation was that the Skyway has taken over 15 years to hit a million passengers and the Prime Osborn spur, carries virtually no one, so much for the agency’s planning abilities and predictions. Today, Skyway cars shuttle back and forth, dutifully stopping at the urban desert called the Jefferson Street Station, a modern facility in a sea of dirt and weeks, only to terminate adjacent to the convention center/old terminal near the Bay Street freeway ramp.

If their planning abilities leave something to be desired, the ability to follow through and actually complete something besides freeway lanes is even worse. Anyone recall how the Skyway was going to reach Everbank Field, the UF Health Jacksonville, Riverside and San Marco? We've waited 25 years and one can still not get across Main Street or Hogans Creek without walking shoes.

So today the JTA and Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) are busily painting fairy tales for Greyhound Lines and as a retired transportation planner who spent some of my best years as a Trailways supervisor, the con they are perpetuating on Greyhound ought to be enough to keep the City's defense attorneys employed for decades.

A Greyhound bus crosses downtown Jacksonville’s Main Street Bridge. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Here’s what CNN/Fortune Magazine had to say about Greyhound:

As of April, FirstGroup has either replaced or renovated (at $130,000-a-pop) half its U.S. fleet -- about 670 vehicles -- and added Wi-Fi, AC outlets, and legroom. Greyhound also launched Bolt Bus, a joint venture with Peter Pan lines, in 2008. The intercity bus network caters to a younger, hipper crowd. It has also started reevaluating its once-famously seedy terminals, revamping many, moving some, and building more ticketing kiosks. (Bolt, it should be noted, does not have terminals.) It's also overhauling its meandering network to focus on its most popular city-to-city express routes. Today, 60% of Greyhound's business is centered around major urban centers. And FirstGroup is capitalizing on the brand's name recognition back in the U.K. by launching a Greyhound-branded bus service there.

The last piece of the overhaul, says CEO Dave Leach, is changing the culture. Over the course of two years, he plans to travel across the country and meet with groups of 10 to 15 employees at a time to get feedback and present his vision of a younger, cleaner, newer Greyhound. Leach, who started at the company 26 years ago as a baggage handler, says the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

"It's a completely different business," Leach says of Greyhound's latest iteration. "This is an exciting company, it really is."

What the city is not saying is that plans to relocate the convention center to the other side of downtown are moving forward.

Even Mayor Alvin Brown has effectively held up the plans for the JRTC in order to review and hopefully make some rational decisions about the place.

Greyhound has killed JTA's big idea of sending all motor coach carriers into a single station because the city was planning on allowing parasite carriers, (companies using curbside stops rather than real property for stations or paying rent) to use it's 'Intercity Bus Terminal' element of the JRTC.

Amtrak has made zero effort or commitment to come back into downtown outside of sit in on a couple of meetings, and the city virtually refused to endorse the return of Amtrak to the Florida East Coast until the plan was all but dead. Meanwhile, Tampa is courting 'All Aboard Florida,' and the prospect of seeing them jump in seems remote at this time or at least until common sense prevails.

This transportation republic (a more fitting term) has way too many acres and if one includes the 'future rail facilities' and the current JTA bus and Skyway maintenance properties, it would be larger than the Vatican City, a sovereign nation, hardly a 'one stop convenient transfer point.'

Meanwhile, the City of Jacksonville is broke; one of the lowest taxed places in the world and our quality of life is in a free-fall, unable to even support our own public safety pensions. Tell me how likely it is that we will magically come up with the $150 million the JRTC will cost? In spite of our financial woes, a local bed tax could well supply the match to create another, newer, relocated convention center.

You may recall when we ran these slides some time ago, Greyhound and the mayor appear to be the only ones listening.

Slide 5

Slide 8

Slide 9

Left: The expansive proposed JRTC site plan. If JTA has their way, a $5 million Greyhound terminal would break ground this summer, three blocks north of the existing terminal.
Right: An example of a consolidated design that creates additional land for privately built infill development.

Slide 10

Slide 11

Slides 11 and 12: Examples of what existing infrastructure and buildings could be repurposed for as opposed to building multiple similar structures on surrounding blocks.

Slide 12

Slide 13

Land and buildings utilized by existing convention center are highlighted in blue.

Slide 16

As much as eight publicly owned city blocks bounded by Interstate 95, Adams, Lee, and Bay Streets could be utilized for property tax generating transit oriented development, bringing life to LaVilla in the process.

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