Rail funding is coming – is Jax paying attention?

Jacksonville’s entry into the federal rail corridor program is a chance for the city to seize a role in its transportation future. Local leaders must step up to deliver on this longtime goal – will they get on board?

A new rail vision

So what could passenger rail’s resurgence in Jacksonville look like?

The restoration and revitalization of the Jacksonville Terminal at the Prime Osborn could serve as the center point of a vibrant LaVilla, with Amtrak, Brightline, and commuter trains all serving destinations like Miami, Orlando, Tampa, New Orleans, Atlanta, and points beyond. Intermediate stops along the FEC to Miami could include St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, and Cocoa, as well as a potential stop in the suburbs of Jacksonville like Avenues Walk.

A conceptual rendering of the Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center after redevelopment into a transit oriented neighborhood. Courtesy: JTA

What will that take? An FDOT study from January 2023 confirmed that additional passenger rail along the FEC to Jacksonville represents a challenge because North Florida is a smaller region than Miami or Orlando. That means much like Brightline’s Tampa expansion, it will take partnership and creativity.

Although the Florida Department of Transportation is the primary recipient of the Corridor ID selection, local leadership will be critical in getting rail service to the finish line. Much like the city’s successful bid for a Four Seasons Hotel & Residences, advocacy is necessary to demonstrate the value of the FEC corridor to a potential initial operator, most likely Brightline. Such a move would be exactly the kind of catalyzing development Jaxsons have long hoped to see in LaVilla and Downtown.

Even before the trains are rolling, the City of Jacksonville and Jacksonville Transportation Authority can start preparing for passenger trains and transit-oriented development at station sites. The North Florida Transportation Planning Organization can begin studying the needs for rail service for federal grants, including infrastructure like double track and the Moultrie Speedway.

Originally constructed in 1925 as the Moultrie Cutoff, the 29-mile FEC line eliminated 20 miles of previous track with a nearly straight line between St. Augustine and Bunnell. With few existing grade crossings, steps could be taken sooner rather than later to remove them and upgrade the line, enabling faster passenger train speeds and safer travel for riders and drivers alike. Making decisions like this now will be key to delivering passenger rail service.

Additional opportunities

Across the St. Johns River, Clay County has long been recognized as having one of the longest commuting times in the state, solidifying the CSX A-Line corridor as another corridor in the region that makes sense for additional passenger rail services. In 2019, the FRA awarded Amtrak $3.85 million to rehabilitate 52 miles of CSX A-Line track between Palatka and Deland. As a part of that project, CSX agreed to transfer ownership of that segment to Amtrak.

In 2007, the CSX A-Line between Deland and Osceola County was acquired by FDOT for $432 million, which paved the way for the 2014 implementation of Orlando’s 61-mile SunRail commuter rail system. This means, only 50 of 163 miles of railroad track between Downtown Jacksonville and Central Florida currently remain in the ownership of CSX.

Rail service in action

Passenger rail service to and from Jacksonville could take several forms, depending on the Service Development Plan and public support for passenger rail. Given potential alternatives, a phased approach to passenger rail development is likely in the cards.

On the FEC, initial progress in partnership with Brightline could focus on developing service north of Brevard County, constructing passenger stations, train facilities, and track upgrades. Brightline’s planned station in Brevard could serve as a transfer point to enable service to Jacksonville sooner while improvements in South Florida are built to enable through-service. Longer-term capacity improvements could enable higher speeds, expanded service to Miami, Orlando, and Tampa, and eventually transform Jacksonville into a critical midway point for interstate services to points beyond.

A Brightline train passing Boca Raton station. Courtesy: Brightline

Amtrak already operates its Silver Meteor and Silver Star trains on the A-Line, with passenger rail stations in Northwest Jacksonville and Downtown Palatka. Collaborating with Amtrak for additional stations in Downtown Jacksonville and Clay County would offer the region enhanced intercity passenger rail access. Longer-term commuter rail development could establish infill stations as a fast, competitive option for regional travel.

This opportunity is Jacksonville’s time to lead. Not only should there be a serious conversation about advancing plans for bringing Amtrak back to downtown Jacksonville and attracting Brightline service, the pros and cons of acquiring the remaining short segment of the CSX A-Line for additional intercity and regional commuter services should be vetted sooner rather than later as well. These steps lay the groundwork for higher-speed travel to St. Augustine, Central Florida, and Miami, as well as points beyond.

Now is the time for local leaders to stand together and learn what it takes to attract these major investments through the Corridor ID process. The opportunity for passenger rail will only become a reality if we are willing to make it so. So let’s get all aboard.

Editorial by Marcus Nelson.

Marcus is a transportation advocate, urban planning activist, and political consultant, who holds a degree from the University of Florida. Marcus recently served as Director of Outreach at Here Tomorrow, a mental health nonprofit on the First Coast, and has previously worked with multiple political campaigns & organizations. Born in Jacksonville, he enjoys weightlifting and sightseeing.