It's Time for Some Real Talk on JTA's Skyway Plans
Local transit advocates were thrilled when the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) embarked on a mission to finally upgrade Downtown's long-suffering Skyway. But anticipation for what is being called the Ultimate Urban Circulator, or 'U2C', is quickly melting as questions arise about its ability to adequately serve Urban Core neighborhoods. Is Jacksonville setting itself up for another big transit disappointment?
2. Captive Audience
For the Skyway modernization and expansion program to succeed, it will need to serve more than just choice riders and millennials. Serious consideration should be given penetrating current dense, transit-dependent neighborhoods adjacent to the downtown district. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance. Specifically, Title VI provides that “no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” As such, it’s disappointing that JTA’s Skyway plans don’t include several of the dense African-American neighborhoods around Downtown.
It’s especially disappointing that JTA’s current long-term plans include what would be an enormously expensive new river crossing, but fail to include such neighborhoods. Durkeeville and the Eastside are two dense, walkable neighborhoods within a stone’s throw of the Skyway’s planned expanded route. Both are also home to a comparatively high percentage of transit-dependent citizens. Reaching them should be a no-brainer for any transit project, much more significant than a (redundant) bridge over the St. Johns.
A conceptual illustration showing how savings from axing the proposed river crossing could be spent expanding into adjacent districts like Myrtle Avenue (Durkeeville) and A. Philip Randolph Boulevard (Eastside).
There was a reason that until 1936, Durkeeville was home to the last Jacksonville Traction Company streetcar route. On the opposite side of downtown and Springfield, the Eastside has a collection of historic shotgun houses (tiny homes) and a commercial district near Everbank Field that would benefit from premium transit connectivity. Finding a way to tie these neighborhoods by slightly extending proposed routes would allow JTA and Jacksonville to hit a home run when it comes to Title VI.
Indefinitely delayed, a trial autonomous vehicle line utilizing Downtown Tampa’s Marion Street Transitway was supposed to start serving the public for free in January 2018. The service would have used a P-1 electric shuttle with seats for 14 people plus standing room for six. Image courtesy of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART).
Talking about what the Skyway could become, riding autonomous pilot shuttles in Metropolitan Park, and newspaper articles with pretty renderings may be exciting. But nothing happens if there isn’t money set aside to implement. While we bask in the glory of positive press, state tax dollars for projects exactly like this Skyway expansion are being allocated elsewhere.
As recently reported by Mitch Perry of Floridapolitics.com, a Florida Senate bill (SB 1200) to shift $60 million in taxpayer funds from a defunct High Speed Rail project into alternative projects like autonomous vehicles and bus rapid transit is moving forward. Unfortunately for most of the state, this bill orchestrated by Tampa Republican Dana Young would devote 83% of these funds to Miami-Dade County and the Tampa Bay area alone, leaving JTA and the rest of the state to fight over the remaining 17%. If JTA really plans to retrofit the Skyway within five years, Jacksonville needs to start making some serious money grabs at the state and federal levels.
A Bloomberg article suggests that potential funding sources could come as a mix of federal and private-sector partnership dollars. However, we don’t know what type of capacity we need, how much it will cost, or what the estimated ridership levels will be, so significant money from the private sector should be considered a far stretch and unrealistic at best. If the plan is to compete for state and federal funds, SB 1200 indicates we’re losing in that battle. Now is the time to get in the long line of cities holding their hand out for tax money to move their stalled projects forward. If not, Jacksonville could be setting itself up for another huge letdown.
We at Modern Cities agree that the Skyway absolutely should be kept, updated and expanded, and we commend JTA for its commitment to doing that. While the original Skyway failed to meet its stated goals, it is okay for a community to make a mistake, learn from it, and move forward in a positive direction. However, alarm bells sound when a bet on another unproven technology surfaces with a plan that has elements that are awfully familiar to the problems that have plagued the Skyway for decades.
Rather than making another risky transit bet, we suggest JTA keep things simple and expand the system with tried-and-true principals. JTA should replace the current Skyway trains with rolling stock that can handle Jacksonville’s capacity needs and expand the system out to desired locations like the Stadium District, Springfield, Riverside, and San Marco; Durkeeville and Eastside would be additional low-hanging fruit. Combined with smart planning and land use, the system could also inspire development and be a major boon to the revival of downtown and adjacent transit-dependent neighborhoods. By combining safe bets with forward-thinking new technologies, JTA could finally give Jacksonville a transit system we can be proud of.
As long as it doesn’t slap a silly name on it.
Editorial by the managing members of Modern Cities. Contact email@example.com for more information.