01 March, 2009

Monorail Ephemeral Sequences of Pure Ambient Transport.

I would like if I may to take you on a strange journey.
It seemed a fairly ordinary night when

I awoke early eager to talk about a new system of bicycle lanes in my section of the city. It's another crisp spring day in Jacksonville, cobalt blue sky's and a slight breeze in a cool 60 degree temperature. Since my drive from San Jose isn't that far away, I don't regularly use the alternative transit modes provided. I rather enjoy having my car "Skyway Close" for any business that may suddenly inspire me to head out of town. Parking my Avanti at the corner next to the Florida East Coast Railway and Atlantic Avenue crossing has been my early morning habit since they opened the new parking garage that vaults the railroad.

On the West side of the station, a steady stream of buses arrived and departed to and from neighborhoods, offices and industries throughout the city. It's easy to hear the distinct Detroit Diesel on the Silver Eagle motor coaches that come rolling in on the express lines from JTB, Beach and Atlantic, they sound different and offer so much more comfort then the usual city bus fare. The really sneaky buses are the Trolley Coaches that come humming up from Mandarin on the San Jose Bus lanes. No pollution and no more sound then our Skyway, these giant articulated coaches make the trek on several of the city's primary feeder routes.

The coffee and tea boutique at the Atlantic Commuter Station was crowded with a mix of every culture, class, race and purpose, though this particular line seems a bit heavy on the suit and tie or hospital uniform club. Several times each day the Southbank Line is called the "green train" due to the number of green uniformed medical professionals using it to access the Baptist Medical Center stations.

As a Southbound JAXTRAX Commuter Rail train rolls in on track 1, platform A, the early crowd is mesmerized by the alternately flashing headlights and JAXTRAX's unique Mars or Gyro-Lites. I have to confess watching this early morning train stop at the Atlantic Commuter Station while heading Southbound seemed an exercise in futility, yet as many as a dozen persons boarded headed to jobs or homes in the suburbs. I was having so much fun just watching the crowds that I hardly noticed the sleek 6 car monorail train sitting on the other side of platform A. But somewhere during the arrival and departure of the JAXTRAX show, the doors had been opened and it was now in the final stages of loading. Jumping on just before the doors shut seems to be a personal trademark of mine.
In the velvet darkness
Of the blackest night
Burning bright.
There's a guiding star
No matter what or who you are.
As usual my Skyway train, the star of this story, left the station a minute late, causing the inbound train to hold at the station switch until we got out. At least it wasn't me this time, but a group of German? businessmen that seem to have just discovered this little Jacksonville miracle. Then again perhaps not, as they disembark in the patio level station and beer garden of the Hilton Hotel. It dawns on me that like so many other visitors, they were simply aboard for the novelty of the small but most active monorail network in the United States. Already the gardens are full of guests or business people enjoying their special eggs Benedict.

It seems that we barely move until we are in the older Kings Avenue Station. Some of the local buses, especially those that shuttle from downtown just over the bridges to tap the edge of the Southbank business district, are already busy picking up passengers and dropping off others for the Skyway trek. Since this station was instrumental in a plan to make the buildings on Kings Avenue double faced, it has become a more popular stop. Those little boutiques and restaurants now face both the street and the Skyway, and it has brought both a great deal of life.

Our signal, visible from the front car blinks to green as another Southbound train rolls past on the other track. We pull North and click - clack through the switches to the Miccosukee Nations giant casino and Southern Rock Hall of Fame at a site I remember as an old JEA power plant, in fact it seems that in my earliest memories, there was once a shipyard there. We continue to bank around to the West and parallel to the St. Johns River. At a station called Riverplace, a new high rise is taking shape. For the time being the Skyway doesn't stop as the building is being built with the Skyway Station in it's atrium. A short skywalk will carry pedestrian traffic from the new Southbank Tower to the new Crown Plaza Hotel. All too soon the speculation ends as we clear the temporary plywood tunnels and emerge on our final approach to the Prudential Junction Station.

At Prudential Junction the Train loses most if not all of the medical professionals and a few more passengers. This being a unique three level station allows folks to access the mezzanine floor of the Prudential Headquarters building just one floor below our arrival level. The entire floor was converted into a micro-mall with several shops and tiny food vendor businesses that thrive off of a broad demographic mix of traffic. With the Naval and History museums, riverwalk and Friendship Park and the spectacular fountain, this station even does a brisk tourist trade. A local joke has it that JTA will someday install a roller coaster from the 3 level station to the park. Jaxon's are always teasing our guests when they ask for directions down on the riverwalk or park area, "Did you walk or ride the roller-coaster over here?"

As soon as our train departs from Prudential Junction Station we click or clatter through another switch and bank off to the Northwest. An inbound train from Baptist hospitals stations and Aetna is waiting for us to clear so it can shuttle in load and reverse it's direction back on it's single track line to the medical center.

Accelerating to a faster clip we no climb up and over the beautiful St. Elmo Acosta Bridge. Moving the blue lights off of this bridge and having local artists create two large orange colored gateways up and over the Skyway some 90 feet apart and connected by a fixed "bridge" resembling a light artistic version of the original Acosta Bridge or the current Alsop Bridge on Main Street, when it is in the lifted position. It's just a remarkable piece of work all of which has orange lighting at night just shouts a salute to Jacksonville's earliest and loudest transit advocate. Yes from the Beach Road now called Beach Boulevard to a never built high speed electric Interurban Railway and beach trolley buses, Acosta was the fighting commissioner of the late 1920's. The remodeled Acosta also has two other notable features, a protected bicycle and pedestrian lane, as well as water curtain formed by tubes and jets hidden up under the pedestrian cantilever on the Downtown or East Side. Whenever the City puts on a fireworks show or any other nighttime event downtown, laser projections send giant life like cartoons, and images dancing along the river under that bridge. I believe we claim that at times, the Acosta Bridge is the worlds largest movie screen.

As we leave the bridge, we are quite low to the ground to duck under the on ramps for the auto portion of the bridge, then we quickly rise and pass over Bay Street. Here we clatter through the metal moving beam switches of the Skyway maintenance, Brooklyn and Riverside Avenue line. As we are on what is today considered the mainline of the Skyway, there is another 6 car train waiting for us to pass so it can follow us off the Riverside line. We ourselves continue to roll toward Central Station as we turn back east into the Central Business District.

Central Station received a complete remake and today functions as much a part of the Omni Hotel and Parking Garage or CSX Tower Two as it does a commuter station. It certainly still forms a major transfer point with the people headed for Bay Street Station, Jacksonville Terminal and Transportation Center, Brooklyn - Riverside, or Hemming Plaza, Rosa Parks, FCCJ, or Shand's Medical Center. The new 3Rd floor deck of the Station has a large balcony that rings the second floor boarding platforms, a quick trip up the elevator or escalator takes on inside the aforementioned buildings and all the sundry small businesses that have sprouted in that new balcony-skywalk section that ties it all together.

Pulling away on the East Line our train continues above Bay Street to the unique Laura Street Station that is modeled after a Chicago EL Train from a 1935 movie. This mostly steel station vaults the entire intersection of Laura and Bay, with entry's to the Modis and Bank of America Buildings on the lower levels and all under a roof. I think this inspiration came from the rebuilding and beautification that the city did on the Laura Strip back when the prohibition of parking meters went into effect.

When we proceed we pass another train inbound from the East Side of downtown and at this early hour, it would appear that it carry's just as many passengers as mine started out with. We roll into the Newnan Station next to the Convention Center and the new InterContinental Hotel, which along with the Convention Center extend out and cover all of the old municipal or county property's along Bay. Newnan is the station where the streetcars come up from Water Street, much to the delight of the hotel and convention crowd on their way out to the fairgrounds, ball parks or historic Springfield. It's also possible to catch the streetcar here that loops back past the glass and steel county courthouse that finally got completed by a new mayor a couple of years ago. While my jury's still out on my feelings about it, the mayor did say he was going to change the design and complete it, something he did in record time. With that outside steel frame and black and silver metal work it stands like a giant on that edge of the business district. But to me it still looks like something from the set of the famous movie "Metropolis," or what I 'd call "a nightmare in an Erector Set".

Catherine Street Station is in the midst of the new downtown focal point. For it's here in a site once dominated by a JSO Police Station and Jail that a new version of a long ago proposed building called the St. John is topping out at 76 floors. Destined to be the crown jewel of Jacksonville, the Skyway even jogs through the future hotel portion of the building with a station that is going to look like something out of a Disney Space Movie set. In fact two stations on this newer extension have taken on these maverick proportions. Now that The long awaited "Shipyards" trio of towers has finally been built near the foot of A. Phillip Randolph Boulevard, it's a journey that must be experienced to be believed. On entering the Shipyards the Skyway rolls past an open door with air jets that keep the building climate controlled. Once past the jets one is suddenly plunged into the sea. Incredible as this may seem the new aquarium complex was worked into the Hotel portion of the Shipyards and our train pierces through the living sea within a glass tube. After the station, which is built so that passengers can pass onto a beautiful New Orleans Style balcony or down spiral stairs or elevator to street level where the Randolph-Gateway Mall streetcar line ends. It is going to be interesting to see how the future St. Johns building beats this for pure appeal but that is exactly what they claim they are going to do.

The darkness must go
Down the river of nights dreaming
Flow morphia slow
Let the sun and light come streaming Into my life.

Alas it's the end of my ride, the train pulls out for the anticipated crowds of commuters parked around the Municipal Stadium, but I can't see them, my vision is getting blured. I go out on The Shipyards balcony for a cappuccino. I'll sit and try to watch while I catch up on my rest. How I'd love to see the streetcar pull into this station this morning but my clock is ringing on the table. Oh God, REALITY! Just a tired old used up transportation planner and civic activist in a common sense yet delusional dream. Time to wake up and shake the dust off, there are critical decisions to be made this morning. Do I gird myself up for a mind numbing breakfast of Rebel Yell? Do I choose Southern Comfort? Do I dress for another day of warfare against Meso-proterozoic Municipal Morons, Cretaceous–Tertiary Transit Dinosaurs, and plenty of Pleistocene Planners. I was simply having the most pleasant dream of the Jacksonville that "could - be." Now I'm disgusted that I've awakened to the reality of 2009 and the sorry state our city and our country is in. Damn them all. Worse still, I don't even own an Avanti!
It's all over
Your mission is a failure.
Your life style's too extreme.
I'm your new Commander.
You are now my prisoner.
We return to Transylvania
Prepare the transit beam.
Comic excerpts from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (A Jacksonville Skyway Reality)

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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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