Dog Without A Bone – JTA’S Great Greyhound Deception

In this editorial, Metro Jacksonville's Bob Mann explains why JTA's proposed Greyhound station should be reconsidered and why Jacksonville may be a code word for Screw the Pooch.

Published March 19, 2014 in Opinion -

Every time common sense seems to take hold, it seems as if some entity makes an effort to deceive a city and its number one intercity surface transportation carrier into buying into Fantasyland. In order for the proposed Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center (JRTC) to have the passenger and retail appeal desired by its member carriers, we can only hope that intellect and common sense will win the day.
As we enter the final weeks of a marathon arm twisting sales pitch, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) is pulling out all of the stops to drag Greyhound into what may well become the nation’s most dysfunctional transportation center. Actually the so-called Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center, has become a behemoth of a white elephant despite still existing only on paper.

The idea of a “one stop shop” is the primary concept of an intermodal transportation center. Certainly anywhere a transportation center can have all of the carriers under one roof, then that should be the primary goal. This sort of density makes for seamless connections between Greyhound, Trailways, Red Coach, Megabus, La Cubana, Amtrak, city buses, express buses, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), and the Skyway. This creates the critical mass to support ancillary services such as gift and travel shops, restaurants, snack bars and other retail and service outlets.

Unfortunately, the JRTC would fill five major buildings as well as a giant parking garage. The buildings would be scattered across five city blocks bisected by freeway ramps. Necessary we are told, because the Prime Osborn Convention Center (read that the original rail terminal) sits right in the middle. Despite ongoing discussions to relocate the convention center, which would leave a gaping hole in the middle of the JRTC plan.

With Amtrak at the extreme south end of the property, its paltry 200 daily passengers and two trains (4 arrivals and departures) would occupy all 87,000+ square feet of the old Jacksonville Terminal railroad station. Since both trains run southbound back to back in the morning, then follow each other northbound back to back in the evening, we could probably keep the door locked about 20 hours each day without inconveniencing anyone. Such a facility would be unique in that it will have the ability to transport the millennial generation, back through time where they can experience what it was like to travel by train in 1970. An era that except for a ticket agent and a train crew, your footsteps were likely the only thing you'd hear walking through the place.

Blocks away, the JTA announced plans for a new intercity bus terminal with glowing descriptions of buses from a half a dozen companies serving a single point. To connect all of these, planners decided a serpentine, seven block long partially elevated 'concourse' would be built. Simply look up the words, over planned, ridiculous, or dysfunctional, and you'll find a photo of the JRTC.

56 Amtrak trains and 271 Metra commuter trains move through Chicago's Union Station daily, carrying 140,000 passengers. Despite the large numbers, the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA's) plan for a multimodal bus element is a tiny fraction the size of Jacksonville’s proposed transportation center.  Image courtesy of the CTA.

Over the years we've seen the magnificent Jacksonville Terminal Company railroad station go from one of the world’s busiest train stations to an empty ghost. This building, once the largest depot south of Washington, DC, was stripped of its glory, abandoned and trashed. Indeed all of the surrounding LaVilla neighborhood fell victim to a misguided city redevelopment plan. Instead of revitalization, we cleared the neighborhood, its historic red light district, stately mansions, theaters where famous jazz and blues greats played, and a second grand railroad, leaving nothing but fields of desolation. The empty blocks stretch out from Interstate 95 on the west (and beyond where they razed the world’s largest Railway Express Agency station) to the edge of the central business district, licking at the foundation of the current Greyhound station.

We converted the old depot into a far too small convention center, which remains shuttered most of the year. Admittedly the convention center idea might have saved our stately terminal from the wrecking balls that met similar monumental stations in Savannah, Chattanooga, Charlotte, Atlanta and myriad other places. The Skyway had its beginnings at the terminal, now rechristened as the Prime Osborn Convention Center. A 78,000 square foot exhibition hall was added and soon it was discovered the place was too small to even host the regional high school cheerleading competitions. No hotelier was built adjacent to the center and the buildings housing businesses that once surrounded it were leveled within a decade of its opening.

The JTA optimistically stated that the Skyway Express would fill the center’s parking lot with weekday workers, carrying 60,000 passengers a day. The number was later revised to 30,000, then 15,000 and finally around 8,000. The reality of the situation was that the Skyway has taken over 15 years to hit a million passengers and the Prime Osborn spur, carries virtually no one, so much for the agency’s planning abilities and predictions. Today, Skyway cars shuttle back and forth, dutifully stopping at the urban desert called the Jefferson Street Station, a modern facility in a sea of dirt and weeks, only to terminate adjacent to the convention center/old terminal near the Bay Street freeway ramp.

If their planning abilities leave something to be desired, the ability to follow through and actually complete something besides freeway lanes is even worse. Anyone recall how the Skyway was going to reach Everbank Field, the UF Health Jacksonville, Riverside and San Marco? We've waited 25 years and one can still not get across Main Street or Hogans Creek without walking shoes.

So today the JTA and Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) are busily painting fairy tales for Greyhound Lines and as a retired transportation planner who spent some of my best years as a Trailways supervisor, the con they are perpetuating on Greyhound ought to be enough to keep the City's defense attorneys employed for decades.

A Greyhound bus crosses downtown Jacksonville’s Main Street Bridge. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Here’s what CNN/Fortune Magazine had to say about Greyhound:

As of April, FirstGroup has either replaced or renovated (at $130,000-a-pop) half its U.S. fleet -- about 670 vehicles -- and added Wi-Fi, AC outlets, and legroom. Greyhound also launched Bolt Bus, a joint venture with Peter Pan lines, in 2008. The intercity bus network caters to a younger, hipper crowd. It has also started reevaluating its once-famously seedy terminals, revamping many, moving some, and building more ticketing kiosks. (Bolt, it should be noted, does not have terminals.) It's also overhauling its meandering network to focus on its most popular city-to-city express routes. Today, 60% of Greyhound's business is centered around major urban centers. And FirstGroup is capitalizing on the brand's name recognition back in the U.K. by launching a Greyhound-branded bus service there.

The last piece of the overhaul, says CEO Dave Leach, is changing the culture. Over the course of two years, he plans to travel across the country and meet with groups of 10 to 15 employees at a time to get feedback and present his vision of a younger, cleaner, newer Greyhound. Leach, who started at the company 26 years ago as a baggage handler, says the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

"It's a completely different business," Leach says of Greyhound's latest iteration. "This is an exciting company, it really is."

What the city is not saying is that plans to relocate the convention center to the other side of downtown are moving forward.

Even Mayor Alvin Brown has effectively held up the plans for the JRTC in order to review and hopefully make some rational decisions about the place.

Greyhound has killed JTA's big idea of sending all motor coach carriers into a single station because the city was planning on allowing parasite carriers, (companies using curbside stops rather than real property for stations or paying rent) to use it's 'Intercity Bus Terminal' element of the JRTC.

Amtrak has made zero effort or commitment to come back into downtown outside of sit in on a couple of meetings, and the city virtually refused to endorse the return of Amtrak to the Florida East Coast until the plan was all but dead. Meanwhile, Tampa is courting 'All Aboard Florida,' and the prospect of seeing them jump in seems remote at this time or at least until common sense prevails.

This transportation republic (a more fitting term) has way too many acres and if one includes the 'future rail facilities' and the current JTA bus and Skyway maintenance properties, it would be larger than the Vatican City, a sovereign nation, hardly a 'one stop convenient transfer point.'

Meanwhile, the City of Jacksonville is broke; one of the lowest taxed places in the world and our quality of life is in a free-fall, unable to even support our own public safety pensions. Tell me how likely it is that we will magically come up with the $150 million the JRTC will cost? In spite of our financial woes, a local bed tax could well supply the match to create another, newer, relocated convention center.

You may recall when we ran these slides some time ago, Greyhound and the mayor appear to be the only ones listening.

Slide 5

Slide 8

Slide 9

Left: The expansive proposed JRTC site plan. If JTA has their way, a $5 million Greyhound terminal would break ground this summer, three blocks north of the existing terminal.
Right: An example of a consolidated design that creates additional land for privately built infill development.

Slide 10

Slide 11

Slides 11 and 12: Examples of what existing infrastructure and buildings could be repurposed for as opposed to building multiple similar structures on surrounding blocks.

Slide 12

Slide 13

Land and buildings utilized by existing convention center are highlighted in blue.

Slide 16

As much as eight publicly owned city blocks bounded by Interstate 95, Adams, Lee, and Bay Streets could be utilized for property tax generating transit oriented development, bringing life to LaVilla in the process.

Future of Convention Center and Greyhound Undecided?

Visit Jacksonville seeks to revive 'world class' convention center study
By David Bauerlein
Florida Times-Union

A 2007 study on building a top-flight convention center for Jacksonville went nowhere, buried under the double whammy of the Great Recession and city budget woes.

But as tourism rebounds, Visit Jacksonville is seeking to take another look at the study and see what it would take for Jacksonville to capture a bigger share of convention business.

“It’s about starting to have a meaningful discussion,” Visit Jacksonville board Chairman Bill Prescott told the Duval County Tourist Development Council last week.

Prescott said updating the study should focus on building a new convention center near the Hyatt Regency hotel. The city already owns the land at the sites of the old City Hall Annex and county courthouse, and the location is close to restaurants and nightlife that’s lacking at the Prime Osborn Convention Center.

“It’s very obvious what is going to succeed,” said Paul Astleford, CEO of Visit Jacksonville, the organization designated by the city to boost tourism...

...City Councilman Richard Clark said since the decision on whether to invest in a convention center ultimately rests on the City Council, it would be best to have the council decide whether to reopen the convention center study.

Clark, who sits on the Tourist Development Council, said he would be willing to introduce such legislation to fund the study...

Build new convention center space in two phases next to the 966-room Hyatt Regency. The first phase would consist of an exhibit hall built at the site of the City Hall Annex. The second phase would build more convention center space on the site of the old county courthouse, which has been vacant since the new courthouse opened in 2012.

Downtown Jacksonville convention center conversation resurfaces
Ashley Gurbal Kritzer
Jacksonville Business Journal

The on-again, off-again push to build a convention center is on again.

City Councilman Richard Clark in mid-January introduced a bill to fund a $60,000 study to update a 2007 study on the feasibility of a convention center. The update would be funded from the executive operating reserve joint account to contract directly with Conventions, Sports and Leisure International LLC, which completed the original study...

...“If they call and ask and think they can find another option, I have no issue,” Clark said. “I want to work with them on things like this.”
Mayoral spokesman David DeCamp said the administration was reviewing the source of the funding.

“It’s not a question of supporting an update, it’s finding a good funding source for it,” DeCamp said, “but we’re comfortable we’ll be able to find it.”

Paul Astleford, CEO of Visit Jacksonville, said a new convention center would be a “major step forward” for the city.

One must consider what happens when the giant old station is empty once again? Did someone say real estate? Greyhound Corporation and/or All Aboard Florida (part of FECI, Flagler, Fortress) could well develop that magnificent old property into a world showcase transportation center. They could likewise develop all of that vacant space including the awful 'Greyhound Bus Terminal' location into a cluster of mid rise, multi use, apartments, condos, retail and offices clustered around a condensed, single historic building. Developing the multimodal station by simply replacing the exhibition hall with a bus and motor coach zone next to the railroad tracks in exchange for development rights on acres of vacant downtown urban property has got to be attractive.

I would be stunned if Dave Leach, CEO at Greyhound allows his company to be 'railroaded' into such a bad deal, Mr. Leach and Greyhound is smart, JTA not so much, but what JTA lacks in smart it appears capable of making up for with smoke and mirrors.

Plans for new Greyhound station hit a roadblock: JTA, Greyhound no longer see eye-to-eye on the project

Plans to construct a long-awaited $6 million bus terminal for Greyhound near the Prime Osborn Convention Center appear to have hit a roadblock.

State Transportation Department officials say they are ready to release federal money that would fully finance the project, but they are waiting for the Jacksonville Transportation Authority and Greyhound to complete negotiations on the project.

The 'project' however is NOT the JRTC dream, it is simply the 'Greyhound module,' an isolated terminal in a desolate and dangerously perceived section of what was once downtown. Will Greyhounds business sixth sense cause them to simply wait out the new convention center and then move the entire multi-modal terminal into a most amazing and classic giant of a station?

“We’re ready to go anytime,” said James Bennett, the transportation department’s urban transportation development manager for Northeast Florida. “We’re just waiting for them to … give us the go-ahead to move with this.”

The atmosphere in the city is like a cat waiting for the mouse to make the next move. Locally we all know the drill, somebody must have promised Everbank that if they'd just move their operations into the mostly vacant AT&T building (now Everbank Center), we'd clean out the 'riffraff' next door. God knows we couldn't have bank executives eating lunch with 'those people.' Our city has refined running from 'best practice' in mass transit to a fine art replete with countless failures and reams of incomplete ghost projects.

JTA had initially wanted to break ground in the summer on land near the convention center that would house the new bus terminal, opening the way for Greyhound to vacate and sell its current space in the downtown core — a move city officials have talked about for more than a decade as part of revitalization efforts.

In February, Greyhound signed a 40-year lease to use the future building at a rental rate of $46,000 per year, and in August, the JTA board awarded a $5 million contract to Core Construction Co.

Officials had hoped the terminal would be complete sometime this year.

To date, however, work crews have only completed preliminary site work on the land, leaving the one-year construction project essentially untouched.

And now, it appears JTA and Greyhound no longer see eye-to-eye.

Perhaps it's because Greyhound realizes it is being lured to a desert for exile and the likelihood of ever being part of the rail terminal, aside from a seven block walk to the nearest train is zero. I for one am looking forward to the time when they reopen the station, if for no other reason then to look at their faces when they realize 200 train passengers a day in a 87,000 square foot building leaves a bit too much open space.

In a statement, a Greyhound spokeswoman said the company will move into the new terminal only after construction is complete on it as well as an adjacent “multimodal facility” that JTA officials had originally envisioned to be a major transportation hub.

But JTA dropped immediate efforts to build that hub — estimated to cost $180 million — in 2011 after Mayor Alvin Brown and other city officials wanted more time to review the idea and expressed concern about aspects of the project.

The ambitious plan called for a campus of buildings for a regional traffic management center, Greyhound, a relocated Amtrak station and a hub for a citywide rapid transit system of express buses.

JTA still has no immediate plan to begin construction on that project, according to John Finotti, an authority spokesman.

“The multimodal facility is a primary and very important part of this project and Greyhound will plan its move to the new terminal around the completion of the multimodal facility,” said Lanesha Gipson, a Greyhound spokeswoman. “We do not plan to move into the terminal prior to its completion since interacting with other modes of transportation would provide customers with a seamless, more convenient travel experience.”

The authority says it expects Greyhound to honor the terms of the 40-year lease it signed in February.

Another point is even if they build the adjacent "multimodal" hub, it will only be a transfer facility for the city buses and the "Skyway to nowhere".  An improvement to be sure, but hardly the multimodal "republic" envisioned. Fact is, without completely abandoning the railroad line and terminal and moving the whole complex three blocks north, there will never be a rail side to our "multimodal". As we've continuously witnessed over the last 30 years, multi-modal in Jacksonville means buses, taxis and cars. Some have actually said, "big deal, it's only Greyhound". Well remove Greyhound and you have kicked the regional connectivity completely out of the picture and hence the whole conceptual functionality of the structure collapses.

So whatever they end up offering to Greyhound short of the keys to the 1919 era headhouse, should be seen as poison bait.

Examples of Well Planned Intermodal Transportation Centers

In Meridian, the new multi-modal station serves Amtrak, Meridian Transit (Valley Ride) and Greyhound, the platforms are side by side. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

(Valley Ride)
Valley Ride’s modern fleet. Image courtesy of Valley Ride.

San Bernardino Multi Modal Terminal rail platforms with buses pulled up side by side.  Image courtesy of the City of San Bernardino.

Greyhound in the foreground and the Amtrak Platform in the background side by side at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

The Anaheim Multi Modal Center rail platforms are behind the single terminal building and bus platforms are wrapped around it. Image courtesy of the City of Anaheim.

Amtrak and Greyhound side by side at the St. Louis Intermodal Center.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Bakersfield, Trains and Motor Coaches side by side in Bakersfield, CA. Image courtesy of Visit Bakersfield.

This is the site of Jacksonville’s proposed intercity bus terminal. The nearest railroad tracks are several blocks south.  Considering what’s proposed, Jacksonville just may be a code word for “screw the pooch.”

Editorial by Bob Mann. Contact Bob at

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Metro Jacksonville