Salvaging The Skyway

March 16, 2011 61 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The future of the skyway has become one of the most contentious talking points during this year's mayoral race. Here are five affordable solutions that have the ability to increase ridership while reducing the amount of subsidies needed for onging operations.

The Problem

The construction of 9B's first 4-mile phase will cost taxpayers a whopping $82.4 million.  It also won't return anything at the "fare box" but no one is crying boondoggle over this one.

Like public parks, safety, and libraries, the Skyway costs money to operate. While not as bad as money burning Interstate 95, State Road 9B, the Mathews Bridge, or our subsidization of downtown parking, it cost $5 million to operate annually. Fares and parking revenue generated only $345,452 in 2010.

A Skyway Moratorium?

Taxpayers are currently subsidizing parking garages such as the courthouse garage (pictured above) to the tune of $12 million a year.  However, the skyway has become a larger talking point.

17. Stop wasting taxpayer money on the Skyway

Sometimes, we have to admit when something is not working.  The Automated Skyway Express (ASE) is a train to nowhere, and it's taking the taxpayers for a ride.  The ASE costs the people of Jacksonville $5 - $8 million a year, with taxpayers kicking in $9 for every $1 fare. As mayor, I will lead the charge to place a moratorium on Skyway operations and stop the waste!

Two candidates for Jacksonville mayor have indicated they'll look into shutting down the Skyway if elected.

There's one problem: The mayor doesn't have the authority to do it.

Mike Hogan and Rick Mullaney have advocated getting rid of the Skyway, or at least shutting it down, in recent campaign appearances. But the 2.5-mile downtown people-mover, long derided for not going anywhere, is controlled by the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, not by City Hall.

Despite its name, JTA is a state agency that doesn't have to do what the city says. Money to operate the Skyway comes primarily from sales and gas tax revenue, federal funding and a small amount of fare money.

"It is true," said JTA Executive Director Michael Blaylock, "that the city has nothing to do with the Skyway."
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Why A Moratorium Is Shortsighted At Best

The last thing a half empty downtown needs is an abandoned 2.5 mile elevated mass transit system hanging over its head.

While targeting the skyway makes for a good sound bite to those who don't look into the issue in detail, such a move would cause more problems than it would solve.

1. Downtown is struggling as it is.  The revitalization process becomes significantly more difficult with a 2.5 mile abandoned mass transit system with boarded up stations blighting everything around them.

2. Shutting the system down would require the city to repay the U.S. Department of Transportation $90 million.  Talk about a budget buster?

3. Shutting the system down would put Jacksonville in a horrible position to get federal assistance for future federal projects.  Imagine Jacksonville's future economic potential when gas hits $5.00 a gallon and we still don't have viable alternative mobility options in our 800-square mile city?

Shutting down the Skyway could also have other financial implications. JTA said it would have to reimburse the federal government around $90 million if the Skyway is torn down because it paid the majority of costs to build it.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Transportation confirmed that the federal government would seek reimbursement if the system was shut down before meeting the end of its "useful life."

U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Jacksonville would struggle to get money for future public transit projects if it threw away the Skyway.

But that hasn't stopped Mullaney and Hogan from saying they want to get rid of it.
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Five Cost Effective Solutions to Consider

This JTA local bus route graphic illustrates the high level of duplicate transit services being provided within the downtown core.  Significant money savings and better utilization of the skyway, acting as the central transit people mover in downtown, can be achieved by simply eliminating competing duplicate bus operations.

It doesn't take a moratorium to address the skyway's problems or a year or two to figure out how to address them. Here are five cost saving moves to consider implementing in Jacksonville.  They've worked in other cities and if we're serious about reducing operational cost and better utilizing this asset, the new mayor can move on these ideas on day one in office.

1. Eliminate Bus Operations Downtown

The skyway was originally intended to serve as a downtown people mover.  Why not let it do what it was intended to do?  This can be done by eliminating all bus services within the downtown core, including the infamous downtown loops, and utilizing the skyway as a fareless urban transit spine for the entire JTA mass transit system.

Money savings in this option would come from a more efficient and streamlined bus operation.  Side benefits would be a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and diesel particulates in the urban core and a safer environment for the downtown pedestrian.

This image illustrates an example of how to better utilize the skyway in a manner that significantly increases usage while enhancing bus route efficiency.  In this scenario, the skyway (red) would become a fare free transit spine within the downtown area.  The heavy transit duplication created by the downtown loop most bus routes currently make would be eliminated.  Instead, neighborhood buses would connect at skyway terminal points before turning around and ferrying passengers back into their specific corridors of service.  Transit riders looking to transfer would have to utilize the skyway as the connection piece between routes serving different areas of the city.  Crosstown bus routes could still operate along their current routes, while only stopping at the skyway terminal points while in downtown.

Pittsburgh's "T" light rail system is an example of a mass transit spine that operates with a fare-free zone in the central business district.

2. Integrate Transportation with Downtown Development Plans

Ever wonder why transit has been successful in a sprawl bug like Charlotte, yet an abysmal failure in Jacksonville so far?  Perhaps their ability to integrate land use and transportation has something to do with it.  To date, we've treated the skyway like a red headed stepchild when discussing and implementing downtown redevelopment strategies.  

If we want to be a vibrant urban community with transit that takes people where they want to go, we need to make a concerted effort to plan and attract Transit Oriented Development (TOD) around existing station locations.  In the long run, as evidenced by cities like Charlotte, Salt Lake City, and Houston, TOD can provide even a system as short as the skyway with a built in user base.

Ever wonder how St. Louis ended up with one of the most successful mass transit rollouts in recent history?  They coordinated developments like the Scottrade Center (home of the St. Louis Blues NHL team), which opened in 1994, within walking distance of Metrolink (opened in 1993) light rail stations.  The Scottrade Center can be seen on the left, in the background of this Metrolink Station.

The Metromover's (a Skyway sibling) popularity in downtown Miami can be partially attributed to integrating infill development with this downtown people mover.  Like the skyway, this system was labled a boondoggle when it first opened in 1986.  Now its having the last laugh, moving more than 30,250 riders a day throughout downtown Miami.

Charlotte's light rail success has been driven by transit oriented developments that were built along the corridor during its days as a seldom run streetcar line.

3. Sublease Existing Station Floor Area

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 skyway users.  The addition of anchor tenants at skyway stations should be viewed as a revenue generator for the system.

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.

4/5. Station Naming Rights, Train Wrapping & Advertising As Revenue Generator

Would taxpayers object to a San Marco/Prudential Station, view news and advertising on screens above skyway platforms while waiting, board trains encased in colorful advertising, or watching TV advertising on board if it meant increased revenue to reduce the amount of subsidies being spent on the Skyway?  Several transportation authorities are either taking advantage or seriously considering advertising revenue to help sustain their systems.  We should consider the possibilities as well.

The revenue-generating proposals by BART staff include:

-- An in-station video network featuring advertising and train arrival times near the fare gates plus news, weather, financial updates, but no audio, on the platform.

-- An on-train video network with news and advertising, but no audio.

-- Selling station co-naming rights so a company could append its name to an existing station name.

-- Selling advertising on the exteriors of trains, including full train wraps, ads on train doors or banners below the windows of trains.

-- Leasing sections of BART rights-of-way to advertisers who would erect digital billboards.

The amount of money each of those options could generate would depend on market demand, the economic recovery and the time and cost needed to establish the new advertising, said Aaron Weinstein, BART's marketing and research manager. But the potential is huge.
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An example of train wrap advertising on a Detroit Peoplemover train.

Interior advertising in a New Orleans streetcar.

If we put our heads together, we can turn the Skyway and mass transit around in Jacksonville overnight by simply working to better utilize our existing assets and funding sources.  All we need is a little bit of creativity, an open mind, and the will not to accept the status quo as a final answer.

Article by Ennis Davis