14 December, 2007

The Jacksonville Skyway Story, Without the Tears

" A Skyway,

Nowhere to Somewhere
in the
Future "

The JTA's Loudest SkywayCritic considers the history, and the future of this unwanted lemon, and offers a few thoughts on how to make lemonaide.

"What if you built a Transit System, and NOBODY CAME TO RIDE!" Was the recent headline of Charles Herman's, ABC News story. This horror story was carried around the world, something Herman himself may not have been fully aware of. I watched it, squirming on my sofa, on the 19Th floor of a Medellin, Colombia, high-rise. I caught hell the next day when fellow railroad engineers and planners suggested that the story was about something "Bob thought up".

So let's roll the clock back to the 1970's. You might recall that the private railroads had lost the battle for the passenger train, when the Federal Government took railroad tax dollars and built a parallel Interstate Highway system. That the whole exercise was orchestrated by railroad legal departments and cronies in the Nixon administration is obvious from the Penn Central Executive that went dancing through the office tower shouting to the top of his lungs, "We've done it! We've shot the passenger Train!" Railroads would all soon be dead and with them would go every manner of railroad technology. The Age of Aquarius had no room for steel wheels on steel rails. The moniker of the day was "Monorails are the future of all of mankind. Funny since Monorails had been around almost as long as railroads and had never gotten beyond the novelty stage, suddenly Baxter Ward, Los Angeles County Supervisor was proposing a huge Mega system all over the LA basin. Streetcar systems were being talked about in, San Diego and Hollywood, but it was mostly talk. Railroad savvy Interurban fans realized the national conspiracy that had killed the great Pacific Electric Railroad in Southern California, and they set to work placing that tale into a cartoon of epic box office success, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"

Meanwhile in Jacksonville, a 1971 report by the Area Planning Board, climbed on board with a Buck Rogers, plan of their own. What if "The Bold New City Of The South," could build a monorail metro system? The fortune 500's, the NFL and perhaps some of Mickey's friends would beat a trail to our Northeast Florida Metropolis. I was indeed in on the plan. However far from it's "father" as my Colombian counterparts claimed, I was it's Nemesis. I wrote a plan based on a wild idea San Diego had to take a seldom used freight railroad line, and rebuild it, string overhead wire and purchase modern European style streetcars. San Diego said they would build 15 miles from downtown to the Mexican border with $86,000,000 Million Dollars. In Jacksonville, taking the best of San Diego's plan, linking it to our own former "S" line of the old Seaboard, from Union Station to Springfield, then returning on the old Fernandina and Jacksonville Railroad line, otherwise known as the Maxwell House Branch. To complete the loop, I considered a line from Union Station, over to Water to Independence to Bay, where it would intersect with the loop. At the time Jacksonville Shipyards was still downtown and there was still track in place from and along Bay across the front of Metropolitan Park and up into the Talleyrand District. To prevent it from having to compete with the political machine of JTA and City Hall, I proposed we build it was federal grants as a "Heritage Trolley". We could then always convert it to Light Rail at a later date.

By 1984, the decision was firmly made, there would be NO trolleys in Jacksonville, Heritage or otherwise. We would cast our lot with the star ships and monorails, and never look back. In fact during this time JTA dumped the entire records, photos and ledgers of the old Traction System, and the City or contractors destroyed 4 perfectly good Jacksonville streetcars that suddenly had become eye-sores. Though the same cars had stood their ground since 1936, they were reduced to sawdust. The streetcar barns were torn down to make way for a new highway interchange and a freeway that was to run through the old Jacksonville Terminal yards. By 1987 the City was hard at work on the first .07 miles of the Monorail.

According to Representative Bob Carr, the "Monorail thing" was not for transportation reasons, but for political reasons. Washington, DC had decided to award 3 major Cities with downtown "People-Movers", a Federal gift project, to see if these new machines, also called enthusiastically labeled "Personal Rapid Transit Vehicles", would create a building surge and turn around years of downtown decay. Miami, Detroit and Jacksonville, won the awards, and the race was on for each City to raise the bar. Jacksonville announced the new system would carry 56,000 persons a day, Skyway critic Marvin Edwards, blames JTA for the wild numbers, as we counted down toward opening day, the projections were adjusted down to 30,000 daily, then to 18,000 daily, then again to 10,000 a day.

JTA had sold the system to the City fathers on the basis of it's huge ridership potential. The public hearings said it would replace most surface buses downtown, making downtown a walkable and more livable place. Quiet, swift electric trains would whisk commuters to and from a network of outlaying parking garages and bus transfer facilities. The politic was told, it's completely modern break from old fashioned streetcars. JCCI and JTA even falsified reports and insisted streetcars were slow, old, had to run down streets, and compete with automobiles. The hype was dangled in front of then Mayor Jake Godbold, who hung onto every word JTA uttered on the subject. They convinced Congress to dump half of $182,000,000 dollars into our system. But sticker shock hit when the daily ridership slowly peaked at a pitiful 1,200 a day. By 1993, ABC news among others was beating down the door at JTA and City Hall. In 1993, JTA member Miles Francis, shot back, "Until this thing is finished there is no way to measure it's performance or it's potential." The Federal Transit Administration issued a false statement of their own, that "We have NEVER supported it" in 1994. Two years later, the Skyway, was again floating in cash as the river crossing over the new Acosta Bridge was completed and the line into the Southbank opened. Reaching only 2.5 of it's originally planned 4+ miles, the "People Mover" was converted to a true Monorail. By 2002, the ridership had climbed to 2,871 persons a day, not even close to the projections of just the original segment. Banners spanned Bay Street, as a cartoon Monorail proclaimed "I'm Going To The Stadium". Suddenly the bubble burst, and the banners came down. The Skyway was now a hot political potato. Just a core 2 1/2 miles of what should have been a 5 or 6 mile railroad.

Steve Arrington, Director of Engineering for the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, and Skyway apologist, said it's no secret that the numbers are not where we would like them to be. You have to understand, we didn't meet the projections not through any fault of our own or of the Skyway, it's because of a general downturn in the economy of downtown Jacksonville in the 1990's that led to a decrease in development. Other factors have come into play that we couldn't anticipate, such as higher parking fees and gas prices. But Arrington still believes in his monorail, "You just don't build a system like this for the here and now, you build it for 20 or 30 years into the future."

As the Skyway's number one critic, I'd have to still say in my opinion it should have NEVER been built. But what is done is done. We have dusted off the Light Rail Jacksonville plans and now look at ways to blend it all together. Frankly, using a less costly type of track system, we should revisit the Skyway, let's finish it to the Riverside office area, get it over the (always) blocked FEC railroad tracks to a San Marco Station, and let's finally take it to the stadium, coliseum, fairgrounds and Metropolitan Park. Tied to BRT, Mega-Parking, Trolley-Bus, Streetcars and commuter rail, we just might raise that bar beyond Miami and Detroit. As the third largest City on the East Coast of the United States, it's been a long, long wait for our train to arrive.

1 comment:

  1. Bob,

    I enjoyed your expose in the Folio a few weeks back. I am train fanatic and I love hearing whistles at 2 am, I love seeing BNSF engines on the CSX tracks along US 17, as I saw them this weekend. I love seeing the Amtrak trains as well. I wish I could see more steam engines, I know insurance is the issue with CSX, but still, one can always wish.

    One thing I do not wish for is Light Rail Trolleys here in Jax. I do not believe we, the taxpayers, should have to waste tax dollars to tear up the streets, install rails, and hope people ride them. We have this now with the JTA, and the same hope, without the cost to tear up the road.

    What we need JTA to do, is FINISH the Skyway. No more projects for them, until the finish the SKYWAY and run the darn thing into neighborhoods and the stadium. Run it into Riverside, run it to San Marco, then have busses feed into those locations. I live in Avondale, but I'd take a trolley to Riverside, then the Skyway to San Marco to a bar, if I did not have to drive. I used to do this with Marta in Atlanta.

    I think that the JTA needs to finish what it started, finish the Skyway. Whether they make a profit or not, finish it and put the albatross to bed. Once done, no one can say it went nowhere.




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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