Bring Back Jacksonville Traction

July 19, 2007 1 comment Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Should Jacksonville build a rapid transit system based completely on buses (called BRT or Bus Rapid Transit), or streetcars (also called LRT or Light Rail Transit)?

Which system would better serve the central business district? Which of the combinations would better the quality of life and connectivity to the new Transportation Center at Jacksonville Terminal? The City of Jacksonville, is at a crossroads. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority (or JTA), has proposed closing off certain downtown streets to all but, bus traffic and routing all transit buses through a transit mall. The citizens of the City are pushing  for a return to streetcars and a completed Skyway system, as a clean answer to the same problem. Either system might provide the connectivity to future commuter rail plans, which begs the question, “Which is the best fit for a modern boomtown?”

Connectivity is the missing link in JTA’S plans. The City already has a huge investment in a monorail system called The Jacksonville Skyway. The Skyway was built at the same time as the Miami Metro-Mover but has never been completed as promised. This has left the City with a multi-million dollar investment, from garages that ring the downtown, into the Central Business District or CBD. More or less a very short, horizontal elevator-like shuttle. In it’s original form, it was never seen as a regional transit system, but rather the downtown connector for a future regional system. Stations were supposed to be built to allow for seem-less transfers from bus to Skyway. as one entered or exited the CBD. The dreams of tying the Skyway to neighborhoods immediately surrounding the massive towers and employment centers has not been realized. The plans to push the Skyway East into the sports district, North into a hospital district, South into San Marco, or Southwest into Riverside, can all be labeled as failure‘s to complete as promised.

Jacksonville Transportation Authority now wants to build a new bus “freeway,” through the center of downtown, much of it under,  or alongside, the unfinished Skyway. This is a terrible waste of the tax-payers money, and represents an abandonment of plans, and a blatant breech of faith on the part of JTA. Being a railroad in the sky, JTA’S management is fraught with Commodore Vanderbilt’s infamous, “The public be damned,” attitude.

I believe the Skyway should be completed into the City’s vibrant San Marco, Riverside, Stadium and Springfield urban neighborhoods. Consideration should be given to extensions to Saint Vincent’s Medical Center, by skirting to the West of the historic district, to Memorial Hospital where a Beaches transfer could be built, and Edward Waters College.  Coupled with a system of large well lit parking garages, with ground floor retail and food establishments, good security,  bus and streetcar transfer platforms, the Skyway, would become as popular and vital, as Miami’s Metro-Rail, or Metro-Mover systems. There is no reason why the Skyway couldn’t go down to ground level for these transfer stations, making an across the platform transfer possible. I am confident a system of bus free bus transfers at the end of the Skyway routes would make it the downtown trunk line of Jacksonville‘s transit system

JTA’s current plan simply abandons the whole concept of connectivity. The idea that all diesel buses will be forced into downtown at 90 second intervals is offensive to a pedestrian friendly City. Turning into and out of parking garages along these bus routes, will become a dangerous hazard. Everywhere BRT has been tried, it builds a barrier that divides communities and forces pedestrians to run for their lives. Even with new hybrid cleaner buses moving into the City‘s transit fleet, the fantastic increase in sheer numbers would equal a net increase in sulfur, carbon and other smog.

Sidewalk cafs could not develop along such a route, and my own experience has demonstrated that sweeping up a daily pile carbon dust could become a daily chore for the unfortunate urban souls living in downtown.钠 Buses are also loud and do not make for pedestrian friendly conversation, enjoying a urban park, or simply a cool evening walk.

Does the JTA really plan to run this armada of buses through the City so no one has to connect with the Skyway? Isn’t this a reversal of what we were all promised when they built the elevated train in the first instance? With JTA’s newest scheme, our downtown connector, may well become the Worlds largest monument to transportation stupidity. Why is JTA so afraid of clean, electric solutions to our transportation needs? What is it about this highway agency that terrifies them anytime they see rails?

JTA is using some pretty shallow math to “prove,” the new BRT system will work better then any form of Light Rail. First they claim that $55 million dollars a mile, for a busway is a bargain. They have ignored the admonitions of every transit director with experience in these applications, all of which say, to do BRT, one must get it funded and build it without delay. But using a go slow approach, their BRT system will take 20 to 25 years to reach just 26 miles in length. Yet Jacksonville, is the nations largest City in land mass, covering some 850 square miles. How can they possibly hope to serve a City this large with a 26 mile system?

With rampant growth, will the needs of 25 years from now even come close to resembling what they are today?  They claim LRT won’t work because it is “the expensive alternative,” with only slightly better rider-ship projections. This is interesting because they cite cities in South America to prove their rider projections. Certainly South America has strong rider support, they also have populations that cannot afford automobiles.

In each of the Cities they use, Bogota, Colombia and Curitiba, Brazil, the poverty rate is at 50%. Each of these cities have a population of over 5 million persons, making them closer to the population of all of South Florida, compared to Jacksonville alone. How can this data possibly apply to a vibrant Florida metropolis?

The rider data comes under the microscope again when compaired to Tuscon, Arizona’s,  “Old Pubelo Trolley.Ӡ In the roughly Jacksonville size City of Tuscon, they have a system of real heritage trolleys, on trolley tracks, and a system of trolley-look-alike buses. They have found that even though the trolleys only operate a few days a week, and at a higher fare, they are running with capacity loads.

The trolley-look-alike buses which run early morning until late evening, have fallen behind the real trolley’s weekly passenger counts. So real trolleys, even with high fares and limited operations are exceeding the performance of the fakes. Those cost numbers are equally suspect. JTA simply shopped for the most expensive LRT projects in the nation, then released the misleading information. Certainly no one would argue that Buffalo’s new LRT system was expensive, it was built as a subway! St. Louis, Boston, Pittsburgh and Newark, also have elements of Subway or other high dollar construction in them.

What JTA didn’t say was that Memphis has built a pre-LRT streetcar line using a historical collection of vintage streetcars , powered it with an overhead wire, equipped it and opened it for about $3 million dollars a mile. Why was this not mentioned when the JTA went after its latest scheme? Does JTA display an anti-rail bias? Other cities have opened a starter streetcar system without the super high expenses. Tampa, Little Rock, and Kenosha have heritage systems, Portland, Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico both have modern streetcar systems under construction or in operation. All of these cities are on tracks for less then JTA plans to spend on a bus.

What are the positives for the return of what was once Florida’s largest streetcar network. The old Jacksonville Traction Company once reached into every corner of the City. Its sale was part of a national conspiracy funded by highway, oil and automaker interests that ended with the sale of the nations largest urban electric railroad in Los Angeles. This was duly noted in the famous movie, “Who framed Roger Rabbit”.

Today, the finished Skyway in concert with a clean, quiet, electric streetcar system, would give Jacksonville the connectivity that would support it’s booming core and set the stage for future commuter rail service. I have designed a route running from the front of the future Transportation Center at Jacksonville Terminal, through downtown, to the Sports district and returning. The whole route is a single track, one way travel direction,  which sets the stage for easy future expansion.

Tomorrow - Part 2: The Plan


This guest column was written by Robert W. Mann.
Robert has spent the last 3 years of his private transportation consulting business working with the Secretary of Transportation, Inspector General and Professor of Railway Engineering in the Republic of Colombia, to rebuild the Nations Railroads. Now back in the States, he and his wife plan their return to Jacksonville and a renewed interest in the City's Transportation and Criminal Justice problems.

Photos created by Metro Jacksonville.