Is All Aboard Florida A Match For Jacksonville?

November 19, 2014 75 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Quietly in late August, construction began on All Aboard Florida (AAF), a $2.5 billion passenger rail system that could eventually reach Jacksonville. The FEC eliminated passenger rail services between Jacksonville and Miami in 1968, during one of the most violet labor conflicts of the 20th century. While these days may be gone, what does appear to be back is Henry Morrison Flagler’s 19th century use of passenger rail along Florida’s East Coast as a means to enhance real estate development around railroad stations. Is it possible for Jacksonville to take advantage of the economic opportunity that could be headed its way?

Could AAF Be Coming to Jacksonville Next?

Passenger rail could be coming back to the old Jacksonville Terminal sooner than most expect.

Overall, AAF is anticipated to generate $6.4 billion in direct economic impact to Florida’s economy over the next eight years; $653 million in federal, state and local government tax revenue through 2021, and over 5,000 jobs on average per year after construction is completed through 2021. Those numbers have Tampa’s leaders practically begging AAF to come to their region. According to a 2013 Tampa Tribune article, local officials were worried that a second phase of the project could bypass their city for an Orlando-Jacksonville route.

“I’ve heard about Jacksonville from many different sources, one of the latest during talks at a local transportation subcommittee meeting”, claimed Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe in the article. “I was on a call last week where it was becoming clear we would not be next for All Aboard Florida …if only through the grapevine….we must be poised and prepared and do everything possible to demonstrate that we are a massive market and a very important destination.”  Should Tampa be concerned? Perhaps. Especially, after seeing two local sales tax referendums to fund improved transit in the Bay area, go down in flames at the ballot box.

Since the project’s March 2012 announcement, FEC has mentioned that future extensions could lead to the rail service being expanded to Jacksonville and Tampa.  While working deals to get access to Tampa appear to be daunting, an extension to Jacksonville makes sense, assuming the initial Miami-Orlando segment is successful of course. Due to the fact that FEC already owns the track and Right-of-Way between Jacksonville and Miami, major initial costs for such an intercity passenger rail service are basically being covered with the current implementation of the Miami-Orlando route. In addition, a connection between Florida’s largest east coast cities would serve a corridor that Amtrak has long indicated would be one of the few intercity corridors in the country to break even at the fare box. Last, if AAF’s initiative is to mix transit infrastructure with supportive land development, the opportunity doesn’t get any larger than Jacksonville’s historic terminal and the undeveloped blocks surrounding it.

Just south of Northeast Florida, there’s another east coast city looking to possibly take a piece of AAF’s pie. In an interview with Marc Bernier of WNDB, Volusia County District 2 Councilman Josh Wagner said he wants to see a study done on the possible impact of an AAF train stop in Daytona Beach. During the interview, Wagner believes that AAF could be a potential lucrative game-changer for Daytona Beach “because it would likely bring in more tourists than SunRail, which is mainly designed to be a commuter rail system for people who work in downtown Orlando.”

If this isn’t enough to raise the eyebrows of a Jacksonville politician or downtown advocate, on May 29, 2014, AAF filed court documents for a new company, AAF Jacksonville Segment, LLC. On June 11, 2014, the new company penned an agreement with AAF that gives it the easement rights to shuttle passengers on FEC’s tracks between Jacksonville and Cocoa.

Bringing AAF to Jacksonville would, all around, be a positive experience. Bringing AAF to Jacksonville would first and foremost, create local jobs. Just as importantly, the transit oriented development that could come with it could be a game changer for a downtown and adjacent inner city neighborhoods that have struggled to right themselves since the 1960s.

Many of the placemaking features at Denver's recently restored Union Station could find their way to Jacksonville's terminal with proper coordination and planning.

When and if AAF comes to Jacksonville is anybody’s guess at the moment. When questioned about the agreement for a potential Jacksonville extension, an AAF spokesman responded by saying, “we are soley focused on getting the Orlando-to-Miami service operational. Once the Orlando-to-Miami service is operational, extensive ridership analysis and research will be conducted to determine the viability of future extensions and stations.”

This news should immediately clarify two things to Jacksonville’s urban community.  If and when improvements in fixed rail transit come to town, it will probably be AAF before commuter rail, streetcar, or added Amtrak services. Despite being discussed and debated for years, all lack the necessary commitment or funding necessary to move forward anytime soon.  However, the major problem that keeps these projects on the drawing board, appears to be the one AAF has already worked out.

Second, if Jacksonville truly wants such a service to tie its urban core with other major Florida cities, now is the time to improve our local mass transit system, even if finding extra money is like attempting to squeeze blood out of a turnip.

Further investment in the Skyway, local bus system, and other transit modes will be needed for an intercity rail system like AAF to truly be successful in Northeast Florida.

At a recent Urban Land Institute (ULI) meeting, Husein Cumber, executive vice president of Corporate Development for FEC, mentioned that Jacksonville’s poor transit system is one of the missing puzzle pieces holding back AAF from coming to town.

“The initiative is first targeting cities that have local routes in place to take riders from high-speed rail stations to their final destinations. Orlando is one such city. It has been investing in its public transportation system for decades. To compete, Jacksonville would have to have routes in place so a rider could get from a high-speed rail station to places like EverBank Field for a game, to the airport, San Marco or Jacksonville Beach.  If a person can’t easily get off our system and move to their end destination, when we do our ridership studies, the numbers are not going to come out as strongly.”

Jacksonville, you’re now on the clock.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP and Kristen Pickrell.


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