Mass Transit 30 Years Later: Special Report

August 25, 2011 35 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville's Bob Mann (Oklawaha) warned JTA in 1981 that the Skyway would be a failure and that our mass transit focus should instead be set on streetcars and light rail. Thirty years later, San Diego, one of the cities that did what Mr. Mann suggested, has an urban core full of vibrancy and excitement. However, in Jacksonville, the core remains in decline. During this three part series, Metro Jacksonville will revisit Mr. Mann's 1981 editorial, check out urban San Diego today and close by looking at 30 years of rail transit development, ending with recommendations on how Jacksonville can implement affordable rail service and utilize it as a method to bring back vitality to the entire urban core. Thirty years later, as the gas tax subsidizing JTA gets closer to expiring, it appears little has changed. Jacksonville, welcome to 1981.

Part 1: Welcome To 1981

Times Union and Journal, Jacksonville, Sunday, April 12, 1981

Mann favors trolleys over people movers
Written By: George Harmon (Journal Editorial Page Editor)

Robert W. Mann is a man after my own heart. He likes streetcars and I do, too. Only I call a streetcar a streetcar. Mann prefers to describe the modern version of the streetcar as "light-rail transit," or LRT.

Since I have written two columns in the past month on the proposed Downtown People Mover for Jacksonville, and am favorably disposed toward it, Mann has written to me warning the DPM could be a big fat turkey for Jacksonville.

(It may already be a turkey, The Reagan administration this week ordered cities such as Jacksonville to suspend activities aimed at developing people movers, but Democrats in the U.S. House are hoping to block Reagan's move.)

Mann said the so-called experts on mass transit in Jacksonville ought to be paying more attention to the revival of the streetcar-er, light-rail transit- that he says is taking place elsewhere in this country and Canada.

Mann describes himself as a freelance writer and says a book by him is due to be published later this year by Darwin Publications ("no connection with the theory of evolution") in Burbank, Calif. He says this book will be a pictorial history of the railroad systems in Florida and its title will be "Rails 'Neath the Palms."

With that introduction, I will let Mann write most of the rest of this column, which first questions the wisdom of the Downtown People Mover ever getting off the drawing boards, it is time that the Jacksonville Transportation Authority came down from the lofty Buck Rogers perch and examined a very real and cost-effective alternative to what may well be "pie-in-the-sky planning," says Mann.

Downtown People Movers are relatively new in the transit world. They combine several technologies into one system. DPMs include the building of an elevated guideway that is for all purposes, a two-lane highway.

This massive structure must also contain a 'railroad' of some form of guideway to keep the cars on track. Add to this a power delivery system and a computer system and you come out with one very expensive machine.

"As originally planned, the Jacksonville system would virtually be a gift from Uncle Sam, a three- or four- mile $150 million dollar gift. The trouble with gifts of this nature is that someone has to pay to maintain the thing and what happens if the entire system proves to be a turkey? What about 5 or 15 years from now? Will a sleek little box that rolls along, akin to an airport shuttle system, really be the answer for an urban sprawl that may someday reach St.Augustine?"

"I don't intend to spend any more time with DPMs. One only has to travel as far as Morgantown, W.Va, where the federal pilot system has been operating for years, to see this whole thing is a turkey!"

Mann says there is an alternative to a DPM in Jacksonville "but I fear that the JTA, City Hall and perhaps our news media will have to do their homework to see how real it really is. It is called LRT, for light-rail transit. LRT is a rebirth of the old, clunky trolley in a modern high-speed vehicle that can operate on many present track systems."

Mann then offers an imposing list of cities in which planned LRTs are being built or planned. "Light-rail systems are presently being built in Buffalo, N.Y., and San Diego, Calif., and planned for Portland, Ore; San Jose, Calif.; Denver, Col.; Baltimore, Md.; Dayton, Ohio; Sacramento, Calif.; and Vancouver, British Columbia.

"The transit vehicles operate in any number of ways - elevated, just like the DPM, subway, new track in the street, in a median strip, lane separations, transit malls or down the same route that the regular freight railroads use, which in our case includes much lightly-used switching line.

"LRT is electric and clean. It is better on labor than the bus systems since the higher-capacity cars can be linked into trains of up to four or five cars with a single driver. As for speed, which includes time at stations and stops, the average bus in the United States does little better than 11.5 mph while the light-rail vehicle in Buffalo will do 23 mph. LRT has a much higher ridership than the bus systems on a worldwide basis and the vehicles can be bought 'off the shelf.'

"Look at what San Diego has done. The Southern Pacific railroad line from San Diego to Yuma, Ariz., was crippled by a flood several years ago and, even as a freight railroad, Southern Pacific had little interest in the industrial switching tracks that remained stretching from San Diego to the Mexican Border. The city and a short-line railroad operator made an offer on the tracks and soon were given the OK by the railroad.

"Transit planners decided that the existing track was valuable and decided to string the single electric wire and improve the line, where needed, for a ready made LRT system. For a dozen blocks or so downtown a street was ripped up and two tracks were laid in the center in what will remain a running transit mall with restricted auto traffic. And as the sleek new German-built cars leave downtown they can spring like an Amtrak streamliner with crossing lights flashing and bells ringing.

"Portland is building along a freight railroad line and a former freeway right-of-way [yes the freeway was scrapped in favor of LRT]. Calgary, Alberta, is putting its system along existing railroad lines and medians while others are working on deals to operate LRT by day and at peak hours, and allow the freight railroads to switch by night.

"In Jacksonville, there exist opportunities which exist in no other city: a spider web of tracks fanning out from Union Station to Southside, Ortega and Orange Park, Baldwin, northwest Jacksonville and Dinsmore, within a mile of the airport, onto Blount Island, etc.

"Imagine a transit mall or LRT lane from the Union Station to the Union Street viaduct area and from there north into Springfield on the old Seaboard Coast Line tracks, then west to within a block of the Eighth Street hospital and then south to Union Station as a starter."

"Then tell yourself that it is already there save for the downtown mall and the trolley wire and it wouldn't have to compete with the automobile. Next tell yourself that San Diego built a 16 mile system for half the cost of our Four-mile DPM and used not one penny of federal money! Next ask: Who really runs things at the JTA?"

I have run out of space and cannot begin to answer Mann's questions, and am not sure how well I could. So I will end with this question: What do you readers think of his ideas? I'd like to know.

San Diego: 30 years later

Like Jacksonville, San Diego plays second fiddle to larger metropolitan areas in its state.  Like Jacksonville, the Navy is San Diego's largest employer.  Like Jacksonville, San Diego is a port city with a downtown waterfront miles inland from the beach.  Like Jacksonville, San Diego is a city with sprawling municipal limits covering hundreds of miles.  However, unlike Jacksonville, San Diego opened its first light-rail line in 1981 and modified its land use policies to encourage transit-oriented development.

Jacksonville: 30 years later

Since 1981, Downtown Jacksonville has continued to decline despite billions invested in gimmicks that were intended to attract suburbanites instead of infrastructure, like reliable transit that has a proven ability to stimulate walkable development.  At the same time, billions have been used to subsidize low-density, unsustainable sprawl to the point that our municipal budget situation is now out of control.

Since the aforementioned news article was written three decades ago, Jacksonville has made every excuse in the book to continue its "road building at any cost" rampage.  In the meantime, those peers that Bob Mann mentioned were investing in streetcars and light rail, and are now national models for urbanism, walkability and sustainable development.

As we set our eyes on Bus Rapid Transit and the Outer Beltway in the name of economic development and job creation, maybe we should take a step back and implement what Mr. Mann suggested to keep from repeating the same mistakes?

Next Article: 'San Diego - 30 Years Later'
Metro Jacksonville visits the downtown of a city celebrating the 30th anniversary of its first light-rail line opening.

Photos by Ennis Davis.