Re-evaluating the Skyway

October 17, 2008 219 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The Skyway has been one of the biggest points of contention in Jacksonville transportation history. Many critics claim it is a bust that goes from nowhere to nowhere. This article takes a look at the Skyway from a different viewpoint. One that reveals that expanding the system to make it more viable may not be as expensive as previously thought.



The Skyway has been a fixture in Downtown since 1989.  Nearly 20 years later, the incomplete system still struggles to attract ridership. 


Editorial by Bob Mann

It's certainly easy to sit back and make light of the Skyway, everyone seems to be guilty at some point. I confess that I was without a doubt the number one enemy of the whole project back in the 1970s and 80's. Guilty not of simply burning the Skyway in print and television, but rather guilty of taking a blow-torch to it. I would never have built it in the first place, but the only thing worse then building any fixed transit system is half-way building it.

In the case of the Skyway, I find that the City leadership and myself have completely swapped positions. As a transportation professional, the worst thing we can do is sit on the Skyway as-is and hope for the best. This is done by a well meaning political machine that doesn't want to appear irresponsible for the stewardship of the City's limited budget. They feel they would appear irresponsible as the media has continued the attack I started on the Skyway in 1980, without pause to consider the fallacy of attacking our only green, fixed, clean, electric, traffic free source of transportation in a world of soaring gasoline prices.

Was the Skyway too expensive? Certainly, for the actual route miles we have running, the cost per mile was one of the most expensive in history. Wouldn't expansion, even modest expansion, just continue the hemorrhage of red ink? No! In fact every inch of expansion would bring down the cost per mile of the entire system. Please understand the real expense in the original building and the conversion to monorail accomplished two major goals. The facilities and signals, computers and shops, are State-of-the-Art, with little to no more investment, they could handle the needs of a system 20 - 40 or 60 miles long. The money quite simply was spent up front to give us the ability to expand quickly and cheaply in any direction. The conversion to monorail from the original system gave us untold flexibility and off-the-shelf purchasing power. The final big piece was the St. Johns River crossing on the new Acosta Bridge, certainly not a cheap undertaking even if we would have built a bridge for pogo sticks.

At the request of certain friends on City Council, I have been all over the Skyway with my transportation supplier and contractor friends. The last one while walking asked me, if we can expand it, where do you want to keep the costs? I must confess even I was jaded by the bad press and said something stupid like "well we like to keep it under $30 Million a mile."

My friend almost choked to death right downtown at Central Station. "Bob, I hate to hear numbers like that, my gosh man, this thing could expand and not even approach $15 Million a mile..." Trying to recover, I rather sheepishly said, "Yeah, I guess I knew that all along, why not shoot for 9 or 10?" The conversation and the inspection picked up pace, "Sure 9 or 10, I think it's doable."

So we have this fantastic Skyway, a wonderful super system that frankly the city hasn't caught up with. Every mile we add for $10 or even $20 Million will bring down the overall cost-per-mile of the finished system, and raise the passenger count.
But City Hall, DOT and perhaps even JTA have cold feet. Like an angler that went over the top for the most expensive rod and reel in the world. He now has the tools to bring home the really big fish, but he spent so much on the basics, that now his wife won't let him buy any line... "You've already broke the bank, I'll be darned if I'm going to let you add one inch of new line or one dollar in cost, just get out there and figure out how to make it work just like it is!"

Well as it is we have 2.5 miles that cost us $184,000,000 Million, or about $73 Million per mile, though most of it was a Federal UMTA grant. So if we added 8 miles of new line for $15 Million per new track mile, our cost for the entire system would just top $300 Million, but our cost per mile, for the entire 10.5 mile system would fall to 28,952,380 about the same as BRT or LRT. If we added 23.5 miles of new track at $15 Million per new track mile our new construction costs would be $352,500,000 Million. Add that to the $184,000,000 Million that we have already invested for 2.5 miles and the system comes up to 26 miles in length. 26 miles for a grand total of $536,500,000 finished and operating over the streets for about 1/2 the cost of 26 miles of new diesel bus quick-ways that JTA has successfully pitched to the city as BRT.

We already have everything we need for a first class Skyway system that works.  Add in a few miles of streetcar, commuter rail and BRT throughout the region and we would join the world's big league cities with a transit system second to none.

Bob Mann





Automatic Train Control

A large portion of the Skyway's capital costs went into the ATC (Automatic Train Control) center that controls the Skyway during its operating hours. Not unlike CSX, NS, FEC or even NASA, these high tech control centers monitor every detail of the Skyways daily operation.



Cameras indicate high ridership during the recent Sarah Palin rally at the Jacksonville Landing.  To a degree, it can be argued that the Skyway's struggles have just as much to do with us having a quiet downtown than the system itself.

This type of traffic control system can manage a much, much bigger and more complex railroad then our little Skyway. In fact many railroads today struggling under the crush of freight loads would do most anything to get possession of such an accessory. This one installation is set in a darkened and silent "war room", and like the air traffic controllers or the dispatchers at the CSX or FEC facilities in town, they are glued to their 36 screen monitors and illuminated animated map.

We should take pride in this hidden treasure built into our Skyway, as it is money we will not have to spend a second time. This system can serve a much larger scale system and keep things humming right along. The investment is already made.


Skyway Shops

Inside the multi-track Skyway shops, the cars in the foreground have new windshields and are on the "RIP" track (as the big railroads would call it). REPAIR IN PLACE, or RIP meaning that these cars do not need special attention for light repairs. Things such as light bulbs, window cleaners, vacuum cleaning or Speaker touch ups. No matter what the order, the Skyway facility is built to maintain a much larger system.

This is an "up the skirt" view of the Skyway showing the guide tires that hug the rail. The car is under a giant overhead shop monorail that can lift entire two car trains and move them about the shop. The concrete beam on the floor is broken in several places known simply as "walk throughs". The entire Skyway car, all of the weight, (about 30,000 pounds) and all of the tires, roll across two removable bridge panels, one on each side of the beam. These bridge pieces are upside down "U" channels about 8" x 8" x 8" x 5 feet. 

A view of the Skyway's parts warehouse.


The Monorail Yard

Here is a close up of Jacksonville's Monorail yard and a 4-way stub switch, with a strange historic tale. When monorails first took to the land back in the 1800's there was great concern over how they would be able to switch from one track to another. Even today the highway lobby and other mode sales staffs will throw out the "impossible switching" equation - hoping to cause panic of those ignorant of the subject. The comedy is, this was worked out long ago and not so far away, right here in Florida's own narrow gauge steam railroads.

Railroads were often built to narrow gauge for two prime reasons: lack of money and lack of right of way or space. For this reason, the deep South, expecially Florida, and the mountain west, had 1,000 miles plus at one time. In order to create a railroad yard without many moving parts and to get 3 switches for the price of one the stub-3 way-switch was invented. One simply "bent the iron" or moved the ends of the single main track to line up with your choice of side tracks.

So today the mighty little Skyway enters its impressive yard with a super-king-size, 4-way stub switch. The mainline beam is hinged and rolls on a series of small steel rollers on steel straps bolted to the slab. Powered by an electric motor and all remote control, it hardly looks like its ancestors, but it's all in the family. (see historic photo below) In the 1800's without realizing it, they had stumbled across the solution for the monorails of the future.


Finally, here is a historic photo from Colorado, demonstrating those strange stub switches of the 1880's.  Mr. Flagler, who used and then bought the narrow gauge lines to St. Augustine, Mayport and East Palatka, would be proud of JTA and Bombardier for this one.

If the Brooklyn Park development comes on line, this elevated platform would be extended towards Riverside Avenue.

Many believe that the Skyway can't serve the Stadium District because of capacity issues.  This is an inaccurate assessment.  The ultimate design for the system is right at the 30,000 passengers per hour - per direction.  JTA owns the rights to the center cars designed for this model of monorail by Bombardier Transportation in Canada. Today, current traffic does not warrant the center car, but on the day it reaches the stadium, Atlantic Blvd., or Fidelity, they may be needed. 



 The Skyway's stations present another opportunity to make the system more viable. Many of the existing stations contain large amounts of underutilized space in centralized areas of downtown with decent pedestrian traffic.  Here JTA has the opportunity to potentially lease out areas to vendors who can cater to the general public as well as skyriders.  The addition of anchor tenants at skyway stations should be viewed as a revenue generator for the system.  Below are several images illustrating the large footprint of existing Skyway stations.

 By allowing small tenants that offer a variety of complementing services at different stations, the Skyway can become more attractive to visitors, residents, and workers that currently avoid the system.  Making each station its own unique destination brings higher awareness to the system and encourages more people to use the Skyway to directly connect to these destinations.

Simple kiosks, such as these examples in Toronto and Medellin, Colombia, could take up space in Skyway stations with little effort.





The Skyway was originally built as a high tech people mover. The cars were somewhat larger but they came with all the drawbacks of people-mover systems, ie: the need to build an elevated highway, railway, 3rd rail electric transmission and safety side walls.

The current elevated system is overbuilt.  Portions of this system are strong enough to support light rail.  On the other hand, the recently completed Indianapolis Clarion Health Peoplemover uses significantly less concrete.



 The dual track 1.5 mile Indianapolis Clarion Health Peoplemover opened in 2003.  By not overbuilding the structural components, the modern people mover's capital costs were reduced to $14.2 million per one way mile.  On the other hand, Jacksonville's 2.5 mile Skyway cost taxpayers a whopping $36.8 million per one way mile.


The Skyway, being a true monorail, needs only the "MONO" part to be successful. The Indianapolis "monorail" is exposed as a non-monorail. The system in Indianapolis is a rather advanced people mover which runs on twin 4' foot gauge track. (standard gauge is 4' 8.5" and dates to ancient Greece) Many people equate the sleek elevated trains as equal to a monorail, but this isn't the case. The weight of these trains is greater, the trains and track are the same width, and construction must create and hold up 4 running rails.

The key to making a side-by-side comparison is the benefit of building a true monorail, something we have never done. We now have the trains, the O&M center, support and systems to run a much larger railroad. No longer will we have to build elevated bridges with side rails. We don't even have to keep the whole system high in the air, rather we can place it as close to the ground as makes sense. Anything we do from this point forward should cost less per mile than our proposed Bus Rapid Transit system.  It is widely thought in the transportation world that our downtown - stadium line could be done for as little as $30 Million dollars. A price breakdown on this 2 mile line would look something like this:

BUS - Light Rail Lite-BUS RAPID TRANSIT model $4-10 million.
STREETCAR - $6-12 million.
MONORAIL (Skyway) - $28-40 million.
LIGHT RAIL TRANSIT - $30-60 million.
BUS -BRT (quickway model) - $52-100 million.

Red = Existing Skyway and Stations

Yellow = Conceptual Extensions for discussion purposes

Sports District Extension: 1.33 miles (length) x $15 million/1-way mile = $19.95 million

Five Points/Riverside Extension: 0.92 miles (length) x $15 million/1-way mile = $13.8 million

San Marco Extension: 0.63 miles (length) x $15 million/1-way mile = $9.45 million 


There's no rule that says the Skyway must be elevated.  As proven by the Clarion Health Peoplemover the Skyway can bought to the ground in certain areas to reduce overall costs.


This graphic illustrates how a conceptual 0.63 mile Skyway extension to San Marco Square could be developed to further reduce capital costs.  White represents the existing Skyway route.  Red represents elevated expansion segments while yellow represents ground level expansion segments.  At $15 million per one way mile, this extension would probably cost around $20 million, providing a direct connection between Downtown, Hendricks Avenue and San Marco Square.



What a ground level route could look like.

Of all pieces we have left, the plain single beam or twin beam monorail tracks are about the cheapest thing we could build. We would have no hidden surprises, no massive shops, no computers, ATC or river bridges to build, just simple beams on top of simple piers. All concrete, with some curved metal pieces. The day the city embraces the fact that the most costly components have already been completed, the community will see this system grow.  With logical and cost efficient expansion, it will become a key component of an integrated regional transit system serving the First Coast.  It's time to treat this system like the Rolls Royce that it is - that we bought, rather then some unwanted worn out Yugo.

 Article by Ennis Davis (Metro Jacksonville ) and Bob Mann (Jacksonville Transit Blog)