As Jacksonville grows, we?re beginning to face a traffic dilemma. Roads can only be widened so much and wider roads just bring more traffic congestion and sprawl (look to Atlanta for an example of how more cars feed more traffic frustration). It?s time to start planning for the future, and that future is mass transit.
The Jacksonville Transportation Authoritys (JTA) plan for 2025 includes a network of express bus lanes that will only reach as far West as Blanding and Wilson, South to Baymeadows and Phillips, North to Gateway and East to Regency Square, missing many of the high growth areas of Northeast Florida, such as Nocatee and Oak Leaf. What is the price for these express buses which will speed through 29 miles of Jacksonville? A cool $750 million (assuming zero inflation from now to 2025). One may ask, Why do express buses cost so much. Well, if you investigate the JTAs plan, youll find it includes buying out businesses for transit lanes along their routes, elevating bus lanes (imagine something bigger than the Skyway parading through your neighborhood, carrying a bus 30 feet above your head) and creating high speed bus lanes on many downtown streets.
What are other cities our size doing to handle their traffic problems? Investing in rail ֠ and for a fraction of the cost of our express buses. Jacksonville now has the proud distinction of being Americas largest city without a plan for a citywide rail system. Cities like Nashville, Tennessee; Austin, Texas and Charlotte, North Carolina have either just recently launched rail or are actively constructing rail systems for much less than we are paying. Nashville has constructed 29 miles for $41 million and Austin will open 32 miles for $90 million next year (and went from concept to construction in four years). These are prime examples of how a rail system can be as low as $1 to $3 million per mile. In comparison, JTAs express bus system is more than $25 million per mile.
Jacksonville is blessed with the prime location of their existing freight rail corridors the corridors that parallel Phillips Highway and Roosevelt Blvd are perfect examples. Another example is the old S-Line, a former rail corridor already owned by the City of Jacksonville that runs through some of the citys most dense neighborhoods on the Northside. Many cities our size (and in some cases smaller cities) have struck public-private relationships with freight rail companies, which allow the use of passenger rail alongside freight rail.
One of the major advantages a rail system has over express buses is the economic development that it can ignite. Austin is already enjoying those benefits, with Transit-Oriented Developments under construction next to their rail lines. The greatest advantage of these developments is their integration with rail stations, they can help limit the cars on the road when compared to other developments of the same size.
In light of the many advantages of implementing a comprehensive rail system, the lack of vision that is coming from the JTA is staggering. JTA points to their construction of the Dames Point Bridge and Butler Boulevard as examples of their vision. When a freeway is built in the middle of a wooded area, it will create sprawl. That doesnt take vision to realize. Instead, JTAs vision consists of expecting people to wait 20 years for their express bus lanes, except for the fact that their system does not reach the areas of highest growth in the city.
Earlier this year, The Times-Union released an editorial entitled, Lets Be Bold. It spoke of building an outer beltway outside of I-295. The beltway would be about 30 miles long and would cost about $1.8 billion (again, assuming zero inflation from now until it is built). Spending nearly $2 billion on a freeway is not exactly bold, nor does it take vision. Instead, lets be bold, tell JTA to give Austin, Nashville, Santa Fe, Salt Lake City, Charlotte or any of our peer cities a call, and just do what nearly every city our size has already done and develop a rail plan now.