Downtown Frankenstein: The Skyway - Screwing up the idea of mass transit

October 17, 2006 2 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville explores the history behind the Skyway. Poorly implemented mass transit ideas can have just as much of a negative effect on the core, as poorly implemented master plans.



The Automated Skyway Express, or "Skyway" has evolved after many years of study by both citizens and professional transportation planners. The concept of a downtown people mover was originated in the early 1970's as part of a comprehensive mobility plan. The first study was completed by the Florida Department of Transportation and the planning department of the City of Jacksonville in response to traffic congestion, pollution and the oil crisis. The 4.6 mile Downtown People Mover (original name), would the first phase of a 42-mile, $800 million regional rapid transit system that was estimated to be operational by 2005.  At the time, planners envisioned that this system would carry up to 57,000 passengers a day.  Of note, the Dames Point Bridge, which was originally designed to accommodate rapid transit would also be a start to this regional wide system. 

In 1977, the City and FDOT handed over the project to JTA for continued development and implementation. Following completion of an 18-month feasibility study, Jacksonville was selected by the federal Urban Mass Transit Administration as one of seven cities to participate in the nationwide Downtown People mover Program.  Under this program, the Federal Government would fund 80% of this project, while the State and City would contribute 10% a piece. 

By this time the plan had been reduced to the construction of a 2.5-mile Phase I system.Work on the initial 0.7 mile Phase I-A segment was begun in 1984. It had only three stations (Terminal, Jefferson and Central). This work was completed in 1989 and two vehicles operating in a double shuttle configuration were placed in service. The technology used was the French MATRA system. Implementation of the full 2.5 mile Phase I system began in 1992. Negotiations with MATRA to provide systems for the new extensions were not successful. In October of 1994, a new supplier - the Bombardier Corporation - was awarded the contract for the new extensions as well as the job of replacing the MATRA technology that was operating on Phase I-A.  

Construction of the final phase of the 2.5 mile Phase I system was completed in 1999. According to an ABC news report in July, 2002, the system was only carrying 3,000 riders per day, far fewer than was projected. Skyway revenues were reported to be $513, 694 in FY 2001 but expenses were $3.5 million.  The full system was opened to the public in November 2000. Skyway spokespersons have blamed a poor downtown economy for the low ridership achieved so far, but have argued that it would prove to be a success in the future. 


The Downtown People Mover (now known as the Skyway), was originally conceived in In 1973, DMJM, a Los Angeles-based consulting team, hired by the city, recommended a 4.4 mile mass transit system that would link downtown with the Gator Bowl to the east and University Hospital to the north. 


As shown in the illustration above, phase one would connect University Hospital (Shands) and Springfield, with downtown and the county courthouse complex on Bay Street. Phase two, would extend from the Prime Osborn Convention Center to Kings Avenue on the Southbank.

This illustration of a proposed station along Hogan Street shows that the original system would be designed to fit in with proposed elevated walkways from the 1971 Downtown Master Plan.


The above illustration compares the original layout, with what was actually constructed.  During the late 70’s, planners abandoned the idea of having the skyway connect with Springfield and Shands, because they wanted to concentrate on downtown.  This would end up being a bad decision, considering the terminal stations of fixed mass transit systems should always be placed major everyday destination points.

This graphic contains various images of negative issues, limiting the ultimate success of the Skyway.  These include seldom used endpoints, such as the Kings Avenue Garage, higher than average construction costs, due to crossing the river, elaborate stations and over-engineering.



Incomplete System

The system is struggling to meet its potential because it was never fully implemented as originally conceived.  An accurate comparison of the Skyway today would be the completion of I-295 / SR 9A beltway, without building the Dames Point or Buckman Bridges.  DPM’s were planned to be systems that would be feed riders from more extensive regional mass transit systems such as heavy, light or commuter rail.  Without a larger rail system in place, serving the entire metropolitan area, the Skyway is only convenient for those who chose to live downtown and those downtown employees who have the extra time to park their cars in inconveint parking spaces with access to the system, in order to save a few bucks.  In addition to not being a fully completed system, here are a few other issues the system must overcome: 

Lack of Major Destination Points

It is the only downtown people mover, out of the three constructed in the late 1980s to not travel in a loop or directly connect riders with major office buildings, shopping centers or destinations, such as the sports complex, county courthouse or Landing.  Contradicting this design, visitors to special and professional sporting events are a major reason for the recent increase in ridership of   both DPM systems in Miami and Detriot.  

Seldom Used Endpoints


Fixed rail works best when its end points are major everyday destinations.  Unfortunately, the Skyway’s end points are a seldom used parking garage, a second rate convention center and JTA Bus Terminal.  The original route, which ran from Shands to the county courthouse would have attract higher ridership, because it would have linked a major medical center to the Northbank and connected a dense inner city neighborhood with the county courthouse complex and downtown waterfront. 


The 2000 Downtown Master Plan recommends expanding the Skyway to the Sports Complex and down Riverside Avenue as private development comes on line.  Brooklyn Park, Hallmark Partners, Fidelity, Bay Street Entertainment District, Berkman Plaza 2, the Shipyards and the St. James Hotel & Residences prove that development is falling in line.  Now its time for the city to find away to implement fixed mass transit as a way to connect it all, creating an inner city core where one will have a viable option of not having to use a car to get around in the future.

This photograph shows where the potential Bay Street route would extend from the existing Northbank line.





Length: 2.9 mile single track, one-way loop through downtown


No. of stations: 13, 8 of which are built into pre-existing buildings.


Cost: $194 millionYear completed: 1987

Total ridership 2005: 1,792,924 or 4,912 riders/day

The People Mover’s ridership has significantly jumped in recent years, because of reinvestment in downtown and the system provides direct service to downtown Detriot’s most popular destinations (ex. NFL, MLB, NHL facilities, Greektown Entertainment District, the Theater District and Hart Plaza “the waterfront”).


 The People Mover is the only local rail in Detroit with the closure of the one-mile trolley line in 2003. Detroit's close ties to the automobile industry are seen as the cause of its lack of convenient mass transit. The People Mover is widely viewed as a failure with high cost, low ridership, and frequent need of repairs. In fiscal year 1999-2000, it had a ridership of 1.5 million, although the system has a theoretical capacity of 15 million. Daily ridership was only 5,000 people.

The Detriot News that year computed that the city was subsidizing the system $3.00 for every $0.50 rider fare. Ridership expanded to 2.2 million in fiscal years 2001 and 2002. In October 1998, the implosion of the Hudson's building damaged the track, closing the People Mover completely for two months. Full service was not restored until November 1999, more than a year later. Renovation at the General Motors headquarters at the Renaissance Center kept the People Mover from offering full-circuit operation for two years from September 2002 to September 2004. 

A major cause of the system's low ridership is the relatively short distance it travels. Many feel that, in its present form, the People Mover does not fill a vital transportation need, as many of its stops are within walking distance of each other. There have been occasional proposals to extend the People Mover northward to the New Center and other areas not within walking distance of the city's downtown. These have yet to come to fruition.  During the first 10 years of operations, suburban visitors tended to shy away from the People Mover, partly because of the short distance it travels, partly out of fear of Detroit crime (In fact, many suburbanites refer to the People Mover by its nickname, the "Mugger Mover").

Within the last five years, the advent of successful sports teams (Tigers / Red Wings / Lions), casinos and stadia located in downtown Detroit, coupled with frequent conventions and the resurgence of downtown restaurants and nightlife, suburban riders now outnumber city patrons for frequent usage.  The People Mover's transit police, surveillance technology and customer service contribute to the low incidents of crime throughout the system. One of the most successful periods of ridership occurred during the 2006 Super Bowl XL, when 215,910 patrons safely used the service during the five-day event (Source: Detroit Transportation Corporation).

Official Detriot People Mover website:



 Length: 4.4 mile system that includes a central downtown loop and branches to the north & south


No. of stations: 20 stations (one every two blocks)


Cost: 1.9 mile phase 1 = $153.3 million; 2.5 mile phase 2 = $228 million


Year completed: 1986 – first phase (loop system); 1994 – second phase (branches)


Total Ridership 2005: 8,724,904 or 23,904 riders/day



With the explosive growth of downtown, many condo projects, such as The Lofts 2, are being constructed as transit oriented developments.

Summary Metromover serves downtown Miami from Omni to Brickell and connects with Metrorail at Government Center and Brickell stations. Out of the three Downtown People Mover demonstration projects, Metromover is well known as being the most successful, mainly because it was constructed as a part of larger regional rail transit system in South Florida.  This system consists of the Metromover, Metrorail (a 22.4 mile rapid transit line with 50,000 boardings daily), and Tri-Rail (a 72 mile commuter rail system running between Miami and West Palm Beach). 


In November 2002, Miami-Dade voters approved a half-cent sales tax to provide funding for public-transportation improvements. As one of the first improvements, the 25-cent Metromover fare was eliminated, making the system free of charge.  A free charge, along with a rapidly growing downtown residential base, ridership on the Metromover has doubled in the past three years from 4.7 million in 2002 to nearly 9 million in 2005. Out of the $381.3 million spent to construct the system, only $7 million was funded by the City of Miami.  The rest came from the Federal Government (75%), State (12.5%) and a special taxing district (9.7%). 



 Length: 1.5 mile duel track system


No. of stations: 3 stations


Cost: $40 million


Year completed: 2003

Total Ridership 2005: estimated 500,000 or 1,379 riders / day


Believe it or not this system was constructed in 2003 for only $40 million, because of a smaller and lighter design.  It was also privately financed.

Summary The Clarian People Mover, which connects the Methodist and IU Riley Hospitals in Indianapolis, is America's first privately owned transit system to operate over city streets.  Each vehicle can seat 8 and stand another 19.  A train-set includes 3 vehicles for a total of 81 people.  Even though a 1700" section of an 18" gas main had to be moved laterally 5 feet, the overall cost of the system was only $40M.   The Clarion People Mover is 14,800 feet long (7,400-foot long two-way guideway), or about $14.2m per one-way mile.  Operating costs are estimated at $900K per year (2.25% of construction cost).  The project broke ground in May of 2001, and the superstructure was completely erected by mid-2002, right on schedule.  The system was commissioned in the Spring of 2003.  System capacity is 1800 riders per hour with an expected 500,000 riders per year.  Although most APM systems run $20-30M/mile (world-wide estimate of systems in development or recently completed), this one cost only $14.2M/mile.  A large part of the difference can be attributed to the smaller, lighter design.  However, the fact that the Clarion system is privately built (and therefore more financially accountable) may explain a significant portion of the cost reduction. 

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