23 November, 2007

Poor Little Sheep In Jacksonville

"We are poor little sheep,

That have lost our way,

Bah, Bah, Bah..."

Mass Transit in Jacksonville, has become the "BLACK SHEEP," of a can-do City. Frankly, we CAN'T DO MASS TRANSIT! Why? The reasons are myriad, but not the least among them is a lack of will, a professional highway building agency playing Mass Transit expert, and a host of missteps and wrong turns at every junction in the path. Jacksonville needs to effect changes at JTA and restore its mission to that, in which JTA excels, building our highways. If JTA is to remain as our sole highway transportation provider, then consideration should be given to a new RTA or "Rapid Transit Authority," that could take over the hoped for: rail commuter district, downtown shuttles, Skyway and planned streetcars. My hope is that this blog will examine the past and present failures of Jacksonville, and help chart the course for remaking our City.
We have all heard the excuses, "Jacksonville is too small", "Jacksonville is too big", "Jacksonville doesn't have density", "Much of Jacksonville is too dense for rail." In a City of a million and a half persons, the reasons for JTA and FDOT's past failures are fading fast. Project after project has been canceled, half built, or abandoned to an unknown fate. The Hart Bridge-JTB freeway, The 20Th Street Bridge over the St. Johns River, The University Blvd Bridge over the St. Johns River, The incomplete and nearly abandoned Skyway, A stillborn light rail "study" and another commuter rail "study", all lost projects of JTA. Yet our press and our governing officials continue to run to respect JTA and FDOT for their expert advice on everything from parking meters, (which have killed downtown retail and restaurant business) to fare increases for lightly patronized buses (which will now be less utilized).
The Jacksonville Skyway Express was billed as "THE FUTURE" of rapid transit in America. We would have built a regional rail system of 15-20 miles for the Skyway investment, but we trusted UMTA and the Godbold administration to Shepard our money. The light-rail plan was labeled as a mere tourist toy, this is Jacksonville, THE CITY, we don't deal with carnival people or tourists. The City, JTA and FDOT, knew where we could get a REAL futuristic transit, so we played follow the leader. We were told a 4.3 mile "system" would do away with buses on surface streets. Sleek 4 car or 6 car trains would quietly and electrically whisk commuters above the downtown congestion. Millions of dollars of new development would follow our "Buck Rogers" planning and locate along the Skyway. 8,000 to 16,000 persons a day would flood the system to reach surrounding urban park and ride garages, each in turn becoming a mini-transit center. Lines would reach the Stadium District/Fairfield, 8Th Street Hospitals in Springfield, San Marco or even San Jose, and deep into Riverside. Union Station would become a hub of activity with a huge convention center/transit complex that would rival the great cities of the frozen North. The future was without limits, the Skyway could even someday reach the Airport and the Beaches claimed it's zealots.
Today, almost 30 years later, we still have 2 car trains. There has been no real development along it's route and perhaps ZERO that could be directly linked to it's presence. The crowds never came, today the Skyway operates empty, costing the taxpayers about $17.50 for every passenger that boards it. The convention center was under-built, the Skyway incomplete, and the transit center, just now on the drawing boards. If everything goes according to plan, the new transit center will sprawl over 8 blocks of downtown, just in time for us to move the Convention Center. Springfield? San Marco? Riverside? Stadium? Fairfield? never completed, ugly dead end Skyway tracks hang in the air where such progress was promised.
Not to fear JACKSONVILLE! Always one for a cheap bargin, we have found a new solution, we are going to build a new "SKYWAY" for City Buses. Over the top of railroad tracks that are already in place. With heavy promotion from Washington DC (the same fellows that GAVE us the Skyway in the first place) JTA now proposes to build elevated 2 and 3 lane freeways for buses. The cost? ONLY $26 MILLION dollars a mile! Trust the DC experts to fix Jacksonville, they will spread that sum over 25 years to build it out. So allowing for inflation on our 25 odd mile "super bus system" will cost a cool BILLION DOLLARS! When they are done, at the very least, we will have some more roads and a few more buses. At the best, they say it will cause a ridership explosion and when it does, we can then rebuild the whole system to RAIL.
This line of DC Talk, is rather like tearing the bathroom out of your house and rebuilding the old privy... (ripping out railroad lines and replacing them with busways)...then if there is a demand, we'll go back in and build a bathroom! (a new rail line). BRT is easy to convert to rail we are often told, well I hope so, because more and more cities that have it around the world are taking it down for rail.
In a very democratic process, they have held the required "town meetings" where citizen input was invited and carefully controlled. The local media didn't even bother to attend, most of the City never knew what was said or done. No one cared. Those few who did attend were snowed by a dog and pony show. Their positive comments droned on and on, and to the few who came to protest? "Your 3 minutes is up, please sit down!" Where points were scored against the BRT or "BUS RAPID TRANSIT PLAN," the record isn't clear. JTA seems to have lost the court reporters transcripts, and the tape recordings. Honest, we have asked for them. I'd love to print them here, both pro and con, but poof they're gone.

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The arguments rage to this date, "Should have never been built," "waste of taxpayer money," "Doesn't go anywhere," "Nobody rides it..." etc. Bottom line is we have it, and it is finally showing signs of life. Simple extensions to the Stadium, San Marco, and the area of Blue Cross in North Riverside would turn this little train around. Addition of Park and Ride garages and multimodal transit terminals at the end points would bring on the crowds. The video must have been shot on a Sunday Morning, as downtown is certainly as packed with life as any other major City on weekdays. Jacksonville is a city of Bikes, joggers, walkers, buses and cars, one almost wonders how the photographer managed to find this quiet moment.

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