Are JTA's Priorities Off-Track?

February 1, 2011 71 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville takes a look at the proposed Jacksonville Transportation Center and wonders if JTA's priorities for a new office building are in the right place?

About the Transportation Offices/RTMC Building

This 4-story, 90,000 square foot office building apparently is JTA's top priority project for the implementation of the Jacksonville Transportation Center.  This facility is intended to serve as the hub of the City's transportation system, managing all traffic operations throughout the region from a central site.

Transport Offices

Approximately 60,000 SF of combined office space for the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) and North Florida Transportation Planning Organization (NFTPO).  The transport offices will also contain a shared board room for JTA and NFTPO.

Regional Transportation Management Center

Approximately 30,000 SF of floor area for the following agencies:

FDOT/ITS Operations
Florida Highway Patrol
City of Jacksonville Traffic Engineering (Signals)
City of Jacksonville Fire & Rescue
Jacksonville Transportation Authority (Security and Customer Service)
Jacksonville Sheriff's Office

The Transportation Offices/RTMC building will be 4 stories in height (on-grade parking + 3 levels of offices/RTMC space).  The RTMC will occupy the highest level.  The Project includes on-grade parking under the Transport Offices/RTMC building and a pedestrian bridge that connects the building to the pedestrian concourse of the proposed transportation center's Skyway module.

While a centralized traffic operations facility certainly has merit, should the construction of a new office building to house these operations be considered a higher priority than returning Amtrak to the Prime Osborn or actually improving transit rider usability and reliability?  Here are a couple of reasons why reprioritization should be considered.

1. Downtown Vacancy Rates

According to DVI, the downtown core has one of the highest central business district office vacancy rates in the country at 23.5 percent.  Do we really need to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on a brand new office building with so much cheap space already available?

2. Downtown Revitalization: Focusing On The Core

These are some of the sad facts presented by Downtown Vision: Employment in downtown is dropping, and the core has one of the highest central business district office vacancy rates in the country at 23.5 percent. More than 50 percent of the core downtown is either parking lots, garages, vacant buildings or buildings less than 25 percent occupied.

Downtown accounted for 13.5 percent of the city’s property tax base 20 years ago. Today, it’s at 3.2 percent.
The last major office tower built in the downtown core was in 1990, the longest period without a major commercial construction project since the end of World War II.

Reversing these trends is critical because a successful downtown is key to a city’s success. But what to do?
Lorince and Downtown Vision believe that to move downtown forward, the focus has to be on the core.
In the last 10 years, more than $1.1 billion of development has taken place in downtown, but the bulk of it has been in the far-flung outer edges.

The clustering of complementing uses within a compact pedestrian scale setting is the key to downtown vibrancy. Which will provide more economic stimulation to the downtown business community?  A new centralized structure a mile away from the core or the reuse of an available site in downtown's walkable heart?

3. Stuck in Holding Pattern

The current $180 million transportation center plan has been on the drawing board for over a decade. Part of the reason it is struggling to move forward is the fact that JTA needs $50 million for phase 1, which includes a new 90,000 square foot office building.  Removing this albatross would allow economic stimulating parts of the plan, such as returning Amtrak to downtown, to move forward.  

4. Can JTA Multitask?

It is already difficult enough for JTA to run a viable mass transit system while also being a road builder.  Do we really want our transportation agency being a commercial real estate developer as well?

For the mayoral candidate looking to better utilize public funds, consider JTA's plans for the transportation center as an area to review in further detail.

Article by Ennis Davis