9 Reasons to Expand the Skyway as a Streetcar

Like it, love it or hate it, it's decision time concerning what to do with the Skyway's future. Here's 9 reasons why the Skyway should be converted into a lightweight streetcar.

Published November 23, 2015 in Transportation - MetroJacksonville.com

The JTA is currently conducting a Survey in which the public is being asked to select 1 of 5 options for the Skyway's (downtown's elevated train) future:

1. Refurbish vehicles and keep running for 20 years, with no expansion.

2. Replace vehicles and run for another 25 to 40 years, with no expansion to the system.

3. Replace vehicles, run for another 25 to 40 years, and expand the system.

4. Stop operating and tear down

5. Stop operating and convert to elevated multi-use path.

The Skyway's elevated support structure is designed to accommodate the loaded weight of a three-car Bombardier Vehicle (2-car version shown above). The unloaded design weight of the three-car vehicle is 33,100 lbs. The crush (fully loaded) vehicle weight is 53,260 lbs. This vehicle operates on a concrete center beam guideway. The dead load of the concrete guideway, which would have to be removed to accommodate a streetcar, is not included in this analysis.

What most may not understand is that the first three options are based on the concept of the Skyway remaining an elevated Automated People Mover (APM) with limited expansion potential outside of the downtown district.

The problem here is that a 6th option should be under serious consideration. That option should be:

Identify and replace with vehicles that can utilize both the existing elevated Skyway infrastructure, while also having the ability to operate at-grade (on ground and in streets).

Sometimes we make decisions that are less rewarding, more complicated and significantly more expensive than they have to be. Here are 9 reasons why something that's been around since the 19th century should be seriously considered as a potential solution to the Skyway's clouded future.

1. Utilize Existing Infrastructure

It's been determined that the existing guideway structure is unlikely to support a heavier streetcar system. No need to debate this. There is a logical reason for this. The load rating of the Skyway's existing elevated structure was designed to accommodate vehicles with a crush weight of 53,260 lbs. The Brookville liberty modern streetcar, one of the lightest modern streetcars in production, has a crush weight of 83,960 lbs.

With that in mind, here are three heritage streetcar vehicles in operation across the country with crush weights similar to existing Skyway vehicles (click on links for streetcar specifications):

Peter Witt Trolley - Weight (approximate): 33,000 lbs.

A Peter Witt Trolley car on San Francisco's Market & Wharves line.

Melbourne Trolley - Weight (approximate): 40,000 lbs.

A reconditioned Melbourne Trolley by Gomaco Trolley Company.

Presidents' Conference Committee (PCC) Streetcar:35,000 - 42,000 lbs.

San Diego's Silver Line began operations on August 27, 2011. The downtown loop utilizes five vintage PCC streetcars.

The existing Skyway system cost $184 million to construct and includes a double tracked bridge over the St. Johns River, connecting the North and South banks. The elevated structure also allows for efficient and reliable transit movement throughout the downtown core, which is critical in attracting and retaining riders. This invested cost is an asset that should be kept. The heritage vehicles mentioned and shown above preserve this unique Downtown transit amenity.

2. Federal Payback Obligation

Under the assumption that anything other than keeping the existing obsolete Skyway vehicles or replacing them with similar APM technology would require the complete demolition of the Skyway system and the JTA would then have to repay millions to the federal government. In addition, the credibility we have in leveraging federal dollars for local transportation projects would be severely damaged. According to the Jax Daily Record, overall, decommissioning could cost the JTA and local taxpayers as much as $79 million. There's no need for us to go down this path if we retrofit the Skyway's existing infrastructure and stations to accommodate new vehicles.

3. Expansion Opportunities

The biggest local gripe about the Skyway is that it does not go anywhere. None of the current options under consideration resolve this issue. This potential Skyway expansion map illustrates all we need to know. This is due to the fact that the existing Skyway's APM technology acts as a downtown circulator, and is not a practical technical solution for expansion to areas outside of the downtown proper. In addition, there's a contextual problem with forcing the APM's elevated infrastructure into historic districts like Riverside/Avondale and Springfield. What's the point of investing millions into something that still won't be able to deliver transit riders to a variety of destinations outside of Downtown?

This sketch by Metro Jacksonville's Robert Mann illustrates how the Skyway's reach could be extended by switching to vehicles that can utilize the existing elevated structure and also operate at street level.

Conversely, in 1912, 13,828,904 passengers rode versions of the heritage streetcars represented above on a 42-mile system covering Jacksonville's entire urban core. This streetcar network had grown to 60 miles, stretching as far as NAS Jax and Panama Park, before being pulled up and replaced by buses in 1936. Today, the largest streetcar system in the country using heritage streetcar vehicles (both vintage and new) is in New Orleans. At 22.3 miles in length, it's proof that using these vehicles can facilitate expansion of the Skyway system to serve several areas of town outside of the Downtown proper.

4. Capital Cost

In suburban Boston, the MBTA operates PCC vehicles on their Ashmont–Mattapan High Speed Line because the infrastructure can't support the weight of heavier modern vehicles. Sound familiar?

When considering expansion, money is always going to be a concern. The JTA estimates extending the Skyway as an elevated APM to destinations like EverBank would cost as much as $30 million per mile to construct. While recent modern streetcar systems have been built at similar prices, heritage streetcars are significantly cheaper. Earlier this year, the M-Line Trolley was expanded to Downtown Dallas at the cost of $15 million per mile.

In other words, if we had $30 million to spend on expansion, going the APM route, we'd use all that cash just to expand the Skyway to reach EverBank Field. If the Skyway system was repurposed with cheaper heritage streetcars, a $30 million expansion would not only get us EverBank Field, but also San Marco Square and Brooklyn.

5. Capacity

A crowded Skyway station during One Spark. The capacity of an existing Skyway vehicle is 56 passengers.

Capacity is a major problem with the existing Skyway APM vehicles, largely overlooked by the general public. They would not be able to handle the crowd, even if the Skyway is extended to EverBank Field. Anyone who took advantage of the Skyway during One Spark should understand this. When comparing the capacity of existing Skyway APM vehicles to the three heritage streetcar examples mentioned earlier in this article, this is clearly the case:

Peter Witt Trolley: 130 passengers/vehicle

Melbourne Trolley: 76 passengers/vehicle

Presidents' Conference Committee (PCC) Streetcar: 113 passengers/vehicle

Thus, any real discussion of expansion opportunities is also going to have to include vehicles that are designed to carry larger amounts of passengers.

6. Maintenance

An obsolete Skyway vehicle in need of repair inside the Skyway's O&M center.

There was a reason the Skyway was only one of three APM systems developed as urban circulators during the 1980s. It was quickly determined that there were more cost effective transit solutions available for cities. Today, the Skyway's unique operating system and vehicles are on their last legs and obsolete, resulting in high Operations and Maintenance costs.

Since the 1989 opening of the JTA Skyway, no American city has built an APM to serve as an urban circulator. Why stick with an expensive transit technology with high maintenance costs that can't be largely expanded beyond its current length ifsomething else more cost effective is available?

Six cities (Charlotte, Tampa, Little Rock, Memphis, Kenosha, Dallas) have built new heritage systems since the initial construction of the Skyway. Several others (Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans) continue to operate heritage vehicles on original early 20th century streetcar lines. A host of other cities, like Savannah, Fort Collins and Los Angeles operate small heritage lines for tourism purposes.

A PCC streetcar undergoing restoration at the Brookville Equipment Company Plant.

US manufacturers that build replica or restore vintage streetcars include Gomaco Trolley Company, Brooksville Equipment Company, and TIG/m. What this means is that there is industry infrastructure in place, reducing cost of vehicles, parts, maintenance and labor that is not available for the existing Skyway APM vehicles.

7. Higher Ridership

St. Vincent's Medical Center in Riverside is one of several transit ridership generating anchors within close proximity of Downtown that the Skyway will never reach if it remains an Automated People Mover (APM).

This one should not be too difficult to explain. The Skyway is currently one of the JTA's most successful routes, averaging 5,000 riders each weekday, despite being only 2.5 miles in length and only serving Downtown. The major detriment to continued ridership growth is the lack of connectivity with a decent number of pedestrian-friendly destinations or direct access to major event sites and employment centers with limited parking. Modest expansion to nearby areas such as the Sports Complex, Five Points, St. Vincent's, UF Health Jacksonville, Riverside Avenue, Park & King, San Marco Square, Springfield, Jacksonville Farmers Market, etc. resolves this issue. Switching to vehicles that allow cost-efficient expansion outside of Downtown to places where people currently live, work and play results in higher ridership. Higher transit ridership in these areas, means more privately owned land can be utilized to accommodate new economic development opportunities, as opposed to vibrancy-killing surface parking lots.

The key to ultimately solving the Skyway's problems is to expand the system to tie Downtown with surrounding neighborhoods and districts like Springfield.

8. Transit Oriented Development

After the opening of the TECO Line Streetcar, Tampa's once distressed Channel District has become a magnet for Transit Oriented Development.

Transit-oriented development, or TOD, is a type of community development that includes a mixture of housing, office, retail and/or other amenities integrated into a walkable neighborhood and located within a half-mile of quality public transportation.

In 2015, the Mineta Transportation Institute released a peer-reviewed research report which used key informant interviews to examine the experiences on modern-era streetcars operating in Little Rock, Memphis, Portland, Seattle, and Tampa. The research revealed that in these cities, the primary purpose of the streetcar was to serve as a development tool (in all cities examined), a second objective was to serve as a tourism-promoting amenity (in Little Rock and Tampa).

Portland's $55 million streetcar line has sparked over $1.5 billion along its route. Little Rock's generated $816.5 million in economic development between 2000 and 2012. In Tampa, its 2.5 mile line has stimulated over $600 million in public and $700 million in private projects since its opening in 2002. It has helped to awaken the Channel District, a former industrial area similar to Commodore's Point, and re-energized Ybor City.

In the case of Tampa and Little Rock, transportation objectives were largely afterthoughts, leading to low ridership numbers, despite being successful tools for economic development. The lesson for Jax is that when properly planned and integrated with supportive land use policies, the streetcar can become much more than a transit system that results in strong multimodal connectivity between Downtown and vibrant districts like Brooklyn, Riverside and San Marco. It can also be utilized as an economic development tool for neighborhoods like Downtown, LaVilla, Sugar, Hill, Durkeeville, Eastside and Springfield.

9. Precedence

A replica Perley A. Thomas streetcar running on dedicated transit right-of-way in New Orleans. This streetcar was manufactured by the Brooksville Equipment Company.

As many cities contemplate new transit projects, traditional streetcar lines are an attractive option as they are relatively low cost and can serve as a tourist attraction in and of themselves, especially on routes through historic areas like Riverside and Springfield.  El Paso, TX, a similarly sized city with a population of 679,036, is moving forward with plans to build a 4.8-mile streetcar line from the Paso del Norte Port of Entry in downtown to West El Paso. West El Paso is home to El Paso Community College, several hospitals and the University of Texas at El Paso.

This $97 million project will use a fleet of refurbished vintage PCC streetcars. The JTA estimates that the average cost of a modern streetcar is $4.1 million. El Paso will pay $1.2 million for new replicas and $1.6 million for refurbished cars, roughly an average savings of 75% for streetcar vehicles.

The goals of El Paso's streetcar project, which Jax should consider for itself, are to enhance mobility, encourage economic development, create new urbanism and smart growth, and pay tribute to the historic nature of the city's core by using streetcars modeled after the El Paso streetcar system of the early 1900s.

The skyway structure without the monorail beam. Install track, acquire new vehicles and give Jacksonville's urban core a chance to really blossom.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. When it comes to the Skyway's future, there should be no need to recreate the wheel.

Article by Robert Mann and Ennis Davis, AICP

This article can be found at: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2015-nov-9-reasons-to-expand-the-skywayas-a-streetcar

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