Mass Transit Deja Vu?

February 23, 2012 29 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville's Bob Mann on how major cities San Diego and Portland took a streetcar development plan similar to Jacksonville's up into the clouds of success, while we fiddled away a leadership opportunity. And - are we about to do it again?

It seems once again, that a fantastic Jacksonville concept has been shoved into the city's closet, while other cities take it and run to the front. This is a classic case of Déjvu.

In Jacksonville, the original proposal in 1980 was for a historic, vintage streetcar line. It was explained to the city that new streetcars could use the same system at a future date. The idea was mocked and JCCI told the city that the streetcars 'must' operate in a street, that they are slow and outdated. Of course it was a set-up deal, the Skyway was going to be free.

Thirty-two years ago I proposed a concept to bring back Jacksonville's historic streetcar system; it made use of five rebuilt, original trolley cars, which were still scattered around town, preserved in various states of decay. Three city councilmen, Eric Smith, Jim Wells, and Andy Johnson, picked up the concept, as well as did the  Downtown Development Authority. Yet, JTA had 'a better idea.' Let's not lock our city into the 1920s,” we were told.

If Skyway, like monorails, were the trains of the future, as JTA led Jacksonville to believe, then why did Burbanks Aerial Swallow never get beyond it's 1912 demonstration? This 'Skyway' was known as 'Fawkes Folly' for its inventor.

The media was told “people-movers and monorails are the train of the future.” Besides claiming the initial line would carry 60,000 passengers a day, JTA was also confused as to the nature of the system, often referring to it as “rapid transit.” After all, it was free, the federal government would pay for it, and we could easily and economically expand it. As the citizen leading the charge for a more logical system, I quickly learned that it didn’t have to make sense; we were going to get a Skyway.

An excellent photo of the ultra modern Charlotte Light Rail system; note the trail alongside and imagine what Jacksonville could do with the 'S-line' or former Jacksonville Belt Railroad.

As for streetcars, imagine rolling south from the Jacksonville Terminal (The Prime Osborn Convention Center) through the beautiful streets and medians of Riverside/Avondale in the same vehicles that built the historic suburb. We would pass Oak Street, King Street, College Street, and then along the former Jacksonville streetcar right-of-way between Roosevelt and the CSX tracks. But no ... we got a Skyway.

Now accelerating to 50 mph, we'd make occasional short stops at little stations in the green strip between the highway and railroad. First Edgewood, San Juan, Venetia and NAS Jax, last stop Wells Road? No; our little 'train-of-the-future-past' turns west on Wells and clatters down to the end of the line toward Blanding Boulevard and a massive parking facility at Orange Park Mall. But according to JTA, its idea was superior and so … we got a Skyway.

Trumpington, Cambridgeshire, Great Britain: where trains once ran, they have now taken up the tracks for bus rapid transit. According to the BRT literature, "when ridership reaches a certain point, it will be converted to rail." Needless to say, that has never been done.

With the Better Jacksonville Plan (BJP), JTA even had $100 million dollars in city money for mass transit right-of-way purchase. Ignoring how development normally works, JTA sat out to buy a number of shopping centers - centers they would call “transit-oriented development.” The citizens demonstrated faith in the system by voting the BJP into being, but unfortunately, JTA's signature lethargy, misdirection, lack of vision, and need to bail out John Peyton's courthouse, saw to the money evaporating. We could have had right-of-way… but we got a Skyway.

These amazing, high-capacity vehicles run in streets like a bus, on segregated railroad tracks like a train, and anywhere else tracks are built. Going where no bus dares to venture, light rail vehicles are just as happy to sprint down the green medians, over the road, under the road, or off the side of the road. This is what might have been if the “Monarchs on Myrtle” had bold, progressive vision, or if we had mass transit professionals running transit rather than highway builders. But we got a Skyway.
At the time we proposed the roughly three-mile starter system, the only other city working on a similar plan was San Diego. San Diego had inherited 15 miles of industrial track, and like Jacksonville, it has a wonderful streetcar heritage. The San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railroad was a Southern Pacific Railroad property, running south to Mexico, where the line turned east and actually crossed and re-crossed the Mexican border. At one time, the tracks rejoined the Southern Pacific mainline in Yuma, AZ., but thanks to massive landslides, was cut off from it's parent railroad and had to forward all traffic via Los Angeles along the coastal route of archrival Santa Fe Railroad. Meanwhile in Jacksonville, the ‘S-line', F&J route, and Gateway Mall railroads were likewise abandoned. We could have easily graduated to real rapid transit … but we got a Skyway.

Hum? What to do? As history records, for an investment of $86 million, (about 1 1/2 the cost of a single Jacksonville outer beltway interchange) San Diego purchased the abandoned and isolated track, rebuilt it, constructed 'stations', strung overhead wire and bought modern light-rail equipment. A leasee bought the rights to continue freight service, and temporal or physical separation insures light rail doesn’t mix with active locomotives. So the trains still switch and deliver their interchange traffic with the Santa Fe (BNSF) at night when the streetcars are put to bed. They have 15 miles of clean, rapid transit. But we got a Skyway.

Meanwhile on the East Coast, Jacksonville so busied itself with the ‘future,’ that Buck Rogers would have blushed. Pouring about $200 million of federal cash into a 2.4-mile monorail (*1) that runs from ‘nothing’ to ‘nowhere,’ but at least you can't get to ‘anywhere,’ by using it. But we got a Skyway.

1954; The highway builders convinced Los Angeleno's that the MTA would modernize the city's mass transit system with a bus subway system. Somewhere along the way, a reality check thankfully killed the idea.

The Skyway came into being at a time when there was unused railroad track running from Broad Street, down the center of Houston Street, all the way to the current JTA bus yard west of I-95. From the bus yard, another unused railroad ran north to about 13th and Moncrief, then turned east to the Springfield Railroad Yard, just east of Ionia Street. In Springfield, it met another unused railroad line, which ran from Gateway Mall, through the yard and south to Maxwell House. Finally, there was also a track running next to Bay Street from Maxwell House, east across the front of Metropolitan Park, to about the area of the Tail Gate Park; This was intact and unused railroad track, entirely on grade-separated right-of-way - all we needed to tie it all together was a short connecting link through downtown.  We would have had a complete urban loop, an eastside branch, and a Gateway branch. In all likelihood, that track could have been sold to the city for a token amount ... but we got a Skyway.

Portland quickly followed San Diego, and the idea is so good, that the number of cities with streetcar and light rail has exploded from a mere handful of survivor lines to around 75 modern systems. There is another 20-30 that operate only vintage cars, and even more systems planned. But we got a Skyway.

Finally, behind all of these other cities, some 32 years later, Jacksonville finally has a streetcar proposal in place. Our starter streetcar line has a creative funding mechanism called a mobility plan. The mobility plan would replace many impact fees on new development, but unlike impact fees, the monies collected would be kept within each of the mobility districts to create neighborhood-specific transit solutions. Just as it appeared we would follow the success of many other cities, the City Council swallowed some talk offered by various builders, and placed a one-year moratorium on the plan. Possibly ignorant of the record, the City Council thought it better in this economy to have a dozen new fast food restaurants than to commit to a plan that could bring billion-dollar relocations our way. One might despair … but we got a Skyway.

One would think with this fiasco being well known, JTA and the City Council might have sat down and learned from this experience, looking at the proven track record of streetcars and light rail to bring about urban change and billions of dollars in new development. Being in the dubious position of the largest city in North America without any form of fixed rail transit, we now have a mobility plan, a streetcar concept and a chance to draw even with our competitor cities. We need to remember … we got a Skyway.

Here is another headline-grabbing monorail attempt, New York's City Island Railway was unique. Its very first run in 1901, packed with excited passengers, promptly flipped onto its side. It finally did get into regular operation and was quickly replaced with a streetcar route.

Meanwhile, JTA has another 'better idea'. Remember, we were told not to lock our city into the 1920s. Bus rapid transit, known as BRT, is JTA’s new 'train' of the future. Dedicated lanes for buses will really bring in the crowds. Massive new development can be expected all along the BRT routes. We are being told it will be “just like rail only cheaper.” There is even an implied certainty that BRT will attract 60,000 passengers a day. Meanwhile, other cities all across the country are posturing themselves to leap ahead. But we got a Skyway.

We are the city that told Mr. Disney that “We don’t do business with carnival people.” We’re the city that built a 1,200-car parking garage with no convenient access, and developed a plan for a multimodal center as big as a small nation.  We're a city that build a bridge too low, a convention center too small, and a courthouse too large, then killed the very plan that would have improved our access to all of them. Our citizenry is so completely misinformed that reality is not a consideration in anything coming from our local government, as South Florida is now taking control of another of our 'great ideas.' Remember the confused words of the former executive director of Springfield Preservation: "We don't need streetcars, WE ALREADY HAVE TROLLEYS!" …But now we’re getting BRT!

Read the story from the Naples News in South Florida :

This Brookline streetcar is rolling along on private right-of-way in 1966, literally on borrowed time. It would be replaced by a dedicated busway that has failed to post the ridership numbers of the old trolleys.

Just imagine what these cities are going to do with their mobility funds. We won’t have to worry about it, because our city council took us out of the game. After all, this new BRT system is largely FREE, the federal government will pay for it, and we could easily and economically expand it. Déjà vu? Déjà vu!

Editorial by Robert Mann.

(*1) The Skyway was originally built as a rubber tired people mover not unlike the ones at many modern airports. When it became obvious that it wasn’t rapid transit, the whole system was changed to monorail.