Commuter Rail: Let's be bold

December 7, 2006 8 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

It's time for bold thinking on developing alternative transportation systems in Northeast Florida. If city officials come together to look beyond the boxes of their own Clay, Duval and St. Johns county lines, the inconceivable could become achievable.

Since the infrastructure is already in place, region-wide commuter rail could be up and running within five to ten years in Northeast Florida for only a fraction of the cost of constructing an outer beltway or bus rapid transit system. It could be done under the guidance of JTA, or even a new independent regional transportation authority specifically crafted to build and oversee this commuter rail system.

Considering commuter rail’s affordability, there would be no need to raise taxes (taxes would need to be raised to cover the cost of new major highways). Acting now would not only shave millions of dollars off future land and construction costs geared towards bus rapid transit, but also stimulate growth in the inner city, provide an efficient alternative transportation network to local roads, and bump Jacksonville up a few notches in the battle for first-rate economic development. 

This diagram showcases the extent of JTA's planned $611 million Bus Rapid System.  If constructed, taxpayers will spend over $21 million/mile on a bus system made to look like a light or commuter rail train on wheels, that won't be operational 20 years for now, much less serve today's rapidly growing areas when it is complete.  Is this sufficient for one of the country's fastest growing metropolitan areas and 14th largest city?

A starter line could run along existing FEC tracks (Southside), City of Jacksonville Right-of-way (urban core) and CSX tracks (Northside), connecting downtown with Jacksonville International Airport, River City Marketplace and the Avenues Mall, and additional cross-county coordination could ultimately extend the system to St. Augustine’s historic district, Orange Park and Fernandina Beach.

Imagine a transit system that actually drops riders of at the top attractions and destinations in our region. Not only would it relieve traffic pressures, but it would also inspire economic growth and urban infill on former industrial sites and under-utilized land adjacent to our rail lines. Furthermore, the relatively low cost of implementing a rail system (some cities such as Nashville have constructed commuter rail systems as low as $2 million per mile) would be a major catalyst in freeing up additional transportation improvement funds for the entire region, putting us ahead of the growth curve sure to come, and slowing down the destruction of environmentaly sensitive land.

Nashville's 31 mile Music City Star commuter rail system recently opened this fall.  It cost the City of Nashville and the Federal Government a total of $40 million to construct this line, its stations and purchase the trains.  For comparison's sake, the 30 mile Outer Beltway proposed for St. Johns and Clay Counties will cost taxpayers a whopping $1.8 billion, if we can ever come up with the money.


We can do this

If we start thinking, talking and acting as a region, looking out for the region, we can encourage the First Coast Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Regional Planning Council to jointly host a workshop with regional stakeholders to explore this concept and its feasibility. We also ask that the JTA’s study of commuter rail place just as much emphasis on enhancing our region’s quality of life and attracting first rate economic development by having alternative forms of transit, as it would place on relieving traffic congestion.

These groups are ideally suited to foster such a forum. They are forward thinking, with a built-in range of officials and agencies from across Northeast Florida, with the MPO and JTA focusing more on transportation needs.

Studies, public hearings, and comparisons with other metropolitan areas would need to be conducted in order to make the concept of commuter rail (with bus rapid transit complementing and feeding the system) a top priority in Northeast Florida, before we go and spend upwards of $700 million on a 29 mile bus rapid transit system that is not only parallel to existing rail lines, but will not even be fully operational 20 years from now to serve this region’s rapidly growing transportation needs. 


Albuquerque's Rail Runner Express opened this summer.  The 47 mile commuter rail line, which runs parallel to I-25, connects Downtown Albuquerque with its Northern and Southern suburbs. 


Status quo is too slow

If we don't try, little to nothing will happen.

The tracks, right-of-way and destinations are already there. More destinations, such as Avenues Walk and a countless other new developments in Northern St. Johns County are on the way. Most of our peer cities are already taking the commuter rail plunge because of new technology making commuter rail affordable and efficient compared to continued construction of new expressways and bus rapid transit systems.

For example, the proposed 30 mile outer beltway connecting Branan Field-Chaffee Road and I-95 has an estimated price tag of $1.8 billion. By comparison, cities such as Austin, TX, are in the process of implementing 40-mile commuter rail systems for as low as $90 million. Furthermore, while outer beltways redirect traffic around the core and open up environmentally sensitive wetlands to sprawl development (requiring even more infrastructure improvements in the process), rail focuses development in areas of the region with sufficient infrastructure already in place.

Federal and state transportation funding is scarce, but today’s commuter rail is so affordable that federal/state money simply isn’t needed for a city the size of Jacksonville to successfully pull this off.

Of course, the major factor working against any type of rail system in Jacksonville is that many in political power are extremely gun-shy about supporting rail because of the costly Skyway Express people mover widely considered a failure, and also because of a lack of knowledge of the different forms of rail and how these systems benefit their community.

Salt Lake City's 44 mile Front Runner commuter rail line, currently under construction is already spurring Transit Oriented Developments at its proposed stations.  Its largest proposed TOD, Station Park (shown above), is a mixed-use development similar to St. Johns Town Center, in the suburb of Farmington, UT.  Locally, Avenues Walk, which is proposed across the street from Avenues Mall, would create a similar environment for commuter rail in Jacksonville.  With destinations, such as this, the question of "Where do I go after I get off the train" is no longer a factor.

Not rocket science

Some might say rail would not work in a city the size or density of Jacksonville’s size. Others might claim that no one would ride it. But critics said the same about rail systems in Miami, Dallas, Charlotte and Salt Lake City when they were first proposed. Today, these systems have been a critical element in attracting billions of dollars of reinvestment within the core of those cities -- so much so that all four cities now have solid plans for additional rail expansion. Is road traffic still a mess in many of these cities? Sure, but as residents slowly gain the option of leaving their SUVs in the garage and saving valuable time by riding rail and not sitting in traffic congestion on highways like Blanding Blvd or I-95, that is beginning to change. That’s something that neither an outer beltway or bus rapid transit system can provide.

The rail lines are already there, the technology is cheap, the method is proven and our roads continue to clog with no real relief in sight. Even smaller cities such as Charleston, SC and Macon, GA have commuter rail plans in the works. All we have to do is move towards the light. Orlando and the state have already paved the path for commuter rail in Jacksonville by working out a rail deal that will result in the removal of the majority of CSX’s freight traffic through the center of our city.

Many questions still remain. Is Jacksonville ready to grow up and play in the economic field with the big boys? Where should stations be located, and how far apart should they be? Would CSX, Norfolk Southern and FEC be willing to allow passenger rail on their tracks in the same way that CSX did with Orlando and Union Pacific with Albueque? Will Nassau, Clay and St. Johns be willing to share in the costs since a rail system would help ease their growing pains as well? Will the Jacksonville Transportation Authority seriously consider revising the $611 million, 29-mile bus rapid transit system in order to accommodate commuter rail -- a system that can be implement decades earlier for less than ¼ the cost of BRT?

Work out a game plan.

We can do this.


San Diego's Coaster commuter rail line has also created several Transit Oriented Developments along it's route and been successful as an alternative to driving in heavy traffic congestion.  In fact, the public's response has been so great, the city is in the midst of building a second commuter rail line to serve other sections of the metropolitan area.




First Phase (Dark Blue & Green Lines)

This graphic shows the location of potential commuter rail lines, as well as JTA's proposed $611 million Bus Rapid Transit system (Orange lines).  A potential first phase for commuter rail (Dark Blue) could run from Flagler Center or the Avenue's Mall (both potential TOD sites), on FEC's tracks to the proposed Downtown Transportation Center, where riders could transfer to Amtrak, the skyway or a revised BRT system serving areas, such as the Southside, Beaches and Arlington,  where we don't currently have rail.

The second segment of that first phase (Green line) would use the City of Jacksonville's S-Line right-of-way to connect Downtown, Durkeeville and Springfield to Gateway Mall.  Stops along this line would be within walking distance of Shands and the Farmer's Market and could stimulate growth and redevelopment throughout the Northside..

The first phase's last segment would use CSX's tracks (Dark blue line) to connect Gateway Mall to River City Marketplace. From this location, airport shuttles (Yellow line) could be used, similar to TRE's rail line in Dallas, to give passengers direct access to JIA, which is about one mile away.

First Phase Extensions (Light Blue lines)

With cross-county coordination and joint financing, the "Blue Line" could be extended into both Nassua and St. Johns Counties.  This would set up a system with to popular tourist destinations (Historic St. Augustine and Centre Street in Fernandina Beach) as terminal stops at either end.  It would also travel through the heart of Northern St. Johns County, which has several mega developments, such as Nocatee, currently under development or proposed, creating park n ride options.

Second Phase (Red Line)

The recent commuter rail deal between the State of Florida and Orlando, will result in most CSX freight trains being relocated around the Orlando.  The benefit for us, is that this also will take them off the rail line connecting Orange Park to Downtown Jacksonville, making it ideal for commuter rail.  This line would provide an alternative option for Blanding Blvd, between Northern Clay County and Downtown, which is something the $611 million dollar BRT system will never do.  Stops along this route could include Fleming Island, Orange Park, NAS Jax, FCCJ or Edgewood Avenue (Murray Hill commercial district and gateway to Avondale).

Future Extensions (The Westside)

As rail is proven to be a successful alternative and road construction prices continue to rise, commuter rail could also be used to connect the Cecil Commerce Center and the Westside with Downtown, opening up hundreds of acres and abandoned industrial properties for redevelopment.  This line could also offer a direct stop at the Beaver Street Farmer's Market, now under construction, directly connecting it to the rest of the region's population.