JTA: BRT is Better! Metro Jacksonville Responds

December 17, 2007 14 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Last week, JTA published an article proclaiming that BRT is the best solution for Jacksonville despite what others may say. Today, Metro Jacksonville responds by pointing out why JTA is mistaken in their proposal.

1.  Why compare BRT to Light Rail?

JTA continues to compare dedicated busways with light rail.  However, Metro Jacksonville continues to suggest “Urban Commuter Rail”.  "Urban Commuter Rail" is a term that has been recently coined by Capital Metro in Austin, TX. Like traditional commuter rail, trains operate on existing freight rail tracks.  However, unlike traditional commuter rail, which can have stations spread out by as much as five miles, service is provided for both suburban and central city passengers with the use of self-propelled diesel multiple unit (DMU) railcars.  In the future, these “existing” rail lines can be upgraded and electrified, if necessary.

This is not Light Rail.  With the use of DMUs, urban oriented passenger rail service can become a reality on existing rail lines, without the need to immediately electrify.  It is well documented that this type of rail line can be put into service at a fraction of the cost of a dedicated busway system.


2.  In Jacksonville, BRT is the better way!

Jacksonville is one of the largest cities in America in overall land area.  We are home to dense pedestrian friendly neighborhoods such as Riverside and Springfield, as well as suburban communities like Mandarin and Orange Park.  Given our demographics, the one size fits all solution will not work.  Every transit corridor should be looked at individually and served by transit that best integrates within the communities it will serve.  In short, Jacksonville deserves a mix of transportation options.  BRT should be designed to feed transit riders into a major rail trunk line from areas of our community that are not located near existing rail corridors.


3.  The S-Line is inferior because it’s a circuitous route better suited to slower transit

JTA is operating under the misguided premise that it is their duty to move buses instead of people. It’s better to move at 35mph, directly connecting true destinations, as opposed to moving 60mph from point A to B, completely bypassing all potential transit riders. 

Not only is the S-Line right of way already owned by the city, it gives Jacksonville’s leaders and residents the opportunity to bring widespread economic redevelopment to the Northside while, at the same time, serving as a joint transit and recreational path.  Considering I-95’s path was chosen to separate and isolate urban communities, using it as a transit corridor will not allow us the opportunity to integrate transit as part of a greater solution for revitalizing the Northside. We will miss the opportunity to reduce crime, create affordable housing opportunities, and directly connecting the majority of JTA’s current transit riders directly to major destinations in Jacksonville’s urban core.

Its not uncommon for rapid rail corridors to travel in "circuitous" routes.  The map above illustrates that the Capital Metrorail line in Austin is more "circuitous" than our own S-Line right-of-way. 


4.  FEC has no intentions of selling or leasing its tracks

It is no secret that the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) has capacity constraints.  As opposed to trying to force passenger rail down FEC’s throat, Metro Jacksonville understands that freight is their main revenue source and instead suggest ways to see how passenger rail can help increase FEC’s capacity.  This may mean building an additional single line of railroad track or adding an overpass at Sunbeam Road. These options are still cheaper than building a dedicated busway, and will help move vehicular traffic more efficiently.  After a competent and impartial study is completed to compare these options (according to JTA’s RTS documents, urban commuter rail has never been considered) with building dedicated busways, only then can we make a determination as to whether rail should be phased along the FEC corridor or if some form of BRT is the best option.


5.  Although viable, it’s too expensive to purchase or lease the CSX “A” line

As a part of the Orlando commuter rail deal, the State will purchase 61 miles of the “A” line for $150 million, or $1.5 million dollars per mile.  While this certainly is not cheap, it is still $24.5 million dollars per mile cheaper than purchasing right-of-way and building infrastructure for a dedicated busway which will cost somewhere between $26 - $33 million a mile, as previously cited in JTA’s RTS Technology Assessment documents.  Furthermore, once this rail investment is made, there will be no need to come back at a later date and convert the entire system to rail at an additional cost to the community, as JTA has suggested.

JTA's Technology Assessment Document shows that the average busway system costs $26 - $33 million per mile to construct.  This same document estimates the cost of "Urban Commuter Rail" (Regio-Sprinter), to run on average between $5 - $15 million for a dual track system.  Several of our peer cities have sliced that number in half by developing "no-frills" systems with single track lines and simple station structures.  


6.  JaxPort’s expansion will take up available track capacity on the CSX “A” line

The major reason behind the Florida Department of Transportation’s $491 million investment in the CSX “S” line from Baldwin to Central Florida, is to reduce the volume of Central Florida bound freight on the A-Line. This will allow the CSX “A” line to serve Orlando’s commuter rail operation. 

When JaxPort rail traffic increases, it will move into Central Florida via the CSX ”S” line through Baldwin or down the CSX “A” line, at night when Orlando’s commuter rail trains are not running.  This means that excess capacity will exist for commuter rail operations in Jacksonville, along the “A” line.  The only obstacle that stands in the way of this viable alternative is the unwillingness or inability of JTA to look at the bigger picture and take advantage of the positive effects of another commuter rail deal which has effectively eliminated the single largest hurdle in bringing commuter rail to Jacksonville.


7.  Ed Castellani says the flexibility of BRT makes it ideal

If building dedicated busways were truly cheaper than urban commuter rail and we were only looking at this issue from a transit perspective, then BRT’s flexibility could be a positive factor for an organization like JTA.  However, Metro Jacksonville believes that the way transit integrates with our communities and neighborhoods should create positive benefits.  This is where the argument of flexibility begins to appear more negative. 

BRT’s flexibility is the major reason that bus rapid transit oriented developments (BTODs) are largely unproven in the United States. They are many times more difficult to bring into reality than rail transit oriented developments (RTODs).  Also, because a large portion of the BRT plan involves elevated sections, it is no more flexible than rail, yet it still comes with the negative connotation that has been associated with buses for years. This “Bus Stigma” is something that no American city has effectively found a way to resolve, and results in low ridership rates.


8.  BRT can be converted into light rail when ridership increases.

So far, there has not been one BRT system in North America that has been converted into a light rail line.  Most major cities avoid this ill conceived plan, because to do so would actually mean paying for two distinct transit systems.  Since “dedicated busways”, of the type that JTA is proposing, cost as much as light rail to build, many cities have elected to build rail from the start, the most recent example being Houston, TX.

In Houston’s case, studies have proven that taxpayers would save over $600 million by building light rail, as opposed to building BRT and then converting those BRT lines into rail, sometime down the road.  In Jacksonville’s case, 3 out of 4 BRT routes already parallel existing rail.  The idea of building BRT parallel to existing rail, then possibly converting the BRT infrastructure to rail is a wasteful duplication of resources and a misuse of taxpayer dollars at best.


9.  Although LRT will draw more riders, it’s more expensive than BRT

Amazingly, our transit authority admits that local riders would prefer rail over BRT.  It’s no secret that LRT and BRT, using dedicated busways, can become pretty expensive.  This is why Metro Jacksonville suggests following the lead of communities like Austin, TX in developing “Urban Commuter Rail” trunk line systems on existing rail corridors, where the capacity exists or where the city already owns the right of way (ROW). 

In Austin’s case, this decision has led to the creation of a 31 mile/9 station, urban commuter system at a cost of $112 million, or $3.5 million per mile.  Austin’s decision to go with Urban Commuter Rail came after an original proposal for a $640 million dollar, 14.6 mile/16 station light rail line died after residents voted in 2000 to not to raise taxes to fund it.


10. Not only does JTA support BRT, the Federal Transit Administration does too

JTA and the FTA also supported the Skyway’s construction 25 years ago.  The FTA has supported recent rail plans in Charlotte, Norfolk, and Nashville, which all are communities just as sprawling as Jacksonville.  Citizens of Jacksonville should not be held hostage to every ill conceived idea hatched by the MPO, JTA, or the FTA. 

Currently, there are serious concerns with BRT’s overall effectiveness and the impact it will have on the surrounding neighborhoods which JTA has been unable or unwilling to address. There are less costly and more effective alternatives that need to be considered before the same people that brought us the Skyway make another mistake that the City of Jacksonville will be forced to live with for the next 30 years.

JTA and the FTA believed that the Skyway Express would attract as many as 56,000 riders a day.  Despite the initial segment opening nearly 20 years ago, the Skyway still struggles to attract 3,000 riders on a daily basis. In an effort to prove to their opponents that rail will not work in Jacksonville, Ed Castellani points to JTA's own failures, claiming that the Skyway is "basically an elevated LRT." A scary statement coming from someone JTA relies on for transit expertise.


11.  LA Gold Line LRT and Orange Line BRT as an "Apples to Apples" comparison

The Gold Line in Los Angeles was essentially constructed as a heavy rail line. The trains do not allow street level boarding, which is typical of light rail systems, so all stations must have elevated platforms. Portions of the line are elevated while other segments are completely underground. In fact, two tunnel boring machines were used on this project, raising the cost to approximately $60 million per mile. JTA claimed that this system was built at grade, which is not true. Furthermore, this system currently has a major extension under construction which will open in 2009. Ridership is expected to dramatically increase once this happens. 


12. Scott Clem says BRT is the best option for Jacksonville

Scott Clem says what JTA pays him to say. He is employed by the JTA for the purpose of giving credibility to their plans. It can be stated with a high degree of certainty that if his opinion diverged significantly from JTA’s existing BRT plan, he would be looking for a new job.