Elevate, eliminate, extend – or keep as is

Elevate, eliminate, extend – or keep as is

JTA ponders what to do about Skyway

It’s been over 18 years since the Jacksonville Transit Authority took over management of the downtown monorail transit system known as the Skyway and now the independent agency responsible for the city’s public transit finds itself at a crossroads.

Faced with an obsolete operation system, spare parts which are impossible to find, and no manufacturer willing to replicate the cars, the JTA has welcomed public input over the past 90 days as it mulls over five different directions the Skyway can travel in the future.

In September, JTA chairman Scott McCaleb formed a three-man subcommittee of his board and a 15-member Skyway Advisory Group comprised of downtown stakeholders to review the following options:

1) Keep the Skyway it as it is but overhaul the existing vehicles and rehabilitate the operating system and infrastructure;

2) Keep it as it is but purchase new, different vehicles and modify them to operate on the existing infrastructure and operating system;

3) Use the current system until the vehicles no longer operate safely, then decommission the Skyway and tear it down its infrastructure;

4) Decommission the system and re-purpose the infrastructure into an elevated bike and pedestrian walkway similar to New York’s High Line in Manhattan; or

5) Extend the Skyway’s routes to travel to neighborhoods adjacent to downtown such as Riverside, Brooklyn, future Healthy Town, and the proposed Shipyards and EverBank Field, while purchasing new vehicles and modifying its infrastructure.

Over the course of the past three months, the subcommittee held five public meetings to discuss these proposed options. A sixth committee meeting will be held Dec. 3, 3-5 p.m. at the Main Library, followed by a public forum, 5:30-7 p.m.

The JTA requested Jacksonville residents submit their preferences via a survey on its website. The subcommittee is scheduled to make recommendations on the Skyway’s future to the JTA Board of Directors at its meeting Thursday, Dec. 10.

JTA had received 232 responses to its online survey as of Nov. 6, said Brad Thoburn, JTA Vice President of Long Range Planning and System Development in a meeting Nov. 12. Of those responses, the two most popular were: extend the Skyway’s route system while modifying the system to accommodate new cars (80 percent) and decommissioning the Skyway it so it could be transformed into a multi-use elevated path (nine percent).

“The Skyway right now is a critical component to where we’re trying to go,” said Aundra Wallace, Chief Executive Officer of the city’s Downtown Investment Authority. “If we’re going to replace it or expand it, it’s going to help us be able to grow downtown, when the decision comes out from this particular committee, with regards to where we go with this particular system and the other systems as well.”

Slow to be embraced

The Skyway came into being in the early 1970s when the Florida Department of Transportation and a mayor’s task force contemplated building a “people mover” as a way to improve air quality and transport commuters over congested downtown streets.

JTA took over the project in 1977, and in 1985 received a grant for $23 million to build a starter line from the convention center to the central station and Jefferson station.

In 1989, the starter line began using a Matra vehicle, which is the same kind of car used in Miami for its metro mover. When the line was extended to Rosa Parks Station in 1997, Bombardier Inc. was awarded a contract to retrofit the system into a monorail, which at that time was considered the vehicle of the future.

By 2000, the Skyway’s operations and maintenance center were completed and new stations had been built at San Marco, Riverplace and Kings Avenue, Thoburn said in a meeting before the North Florida Transportation Organization’s Citizen Advisory Committee Oct. 7.

Overall, the cost of system construction and design was $182 million, not including the planning study. What Jacksonville received for its money were 10 driverless two-car trains, which travel as fast as 30 mph and can carry up to 56 passengers over a 2.5-mile stretch of track downtown. The bi-directional system is touted by transportation professionals as the safest way to travel through the urban core and can connect with bus and Park-n-Ride facilities on downtown’s periphery.

“No mode of transportation can beat the Skyway for frequency,” said Harold Samms, Senior Manager of the Skyway during a meeting Oct. 26.

Unfortunately, at its inception, the Skyway was said to “go nowhere people want to go” and found very few riders, although over the years its clientele has gradually increased.

Since JTA recently restructured its bus routes to better coordinate with the monorail, ridership has climbed to 5,000 riders per day, up 600 per day from a year ago, said Thoburn. This year the Skyway will hit a record 1.37 million riders since it was built, he said.

Looking toward the future

Now that the Skyway has reached its “midlife,” decisions need to be made about its future. While the Skyway is structurally sound, it needs some upgrades to its infrastructure. If kept as it is, over the next 15 years it will require $24 million in infrastructure investments to keep it in good repair, Thoburn said.

“We have vehicles that are past their useful life, that need to be either overhauled or replaced,” said Thoburn. “We are facing significant challenges with the technology that we put in place. It’s proprietary equipment. Parts are difficult to find, and they’re very difficult to service.”

Also, as technology has advanced, its operating system has become obsolete, he said, noting the cars are no longer in production by Bombardier or any other company in the world, and JTA has found little interest among its vendors to reproduce them.

Currently four out of Jacksonville’s 10 existing vehicles are out of service and being used for spare parts, he said.

The cost of overhauling the existing vehicles is $18 million, and adding necessary upgrades to the system could run as high as $70.2 million. Replacing the vehicles with new cars will cost $35 million, and when modifications to the system are added the price could go as high as $85.1 million, Thoburn estimated.

But the other options have costs as well.

No one is discussing specific costs of extending the system to Brooklyn, Riverside, or the Stadium, other than to say building the extensions could be prohibitively expensive.

If the Skyway is decommissioned and its infrastructure torn down, the total cost could be as high as $78.5 million as JTA will be required to pay back the Federal Transit Administration, Florida Department of Transportation and the city for the remaining cost of the Skyway’s “useful life.” Getting rid of the Skyway in its entirety could also impact future funding from the FTA for rapid transit buses and the city’s new compressed natural gas buses. Also, JTA would need to replace the Skyway with alternative transportation such as streetcars, trolleys or buses, Thoburn said.

If the Skyway is decommissioned and transformed into an elevated multi-use path suitable for biking and walking, the total cost could be as much as $67.8 million, as JTA would be required to fulfilled its payback obligations, install fencing, continue to maintain the old Skyway stations and invest in alternative forms of transportation such as streetcars, trolleys or buses, Thoburn said.

“The Skyway is not a standalone system,” Wallace said in a meeting Oct. 26. “It is part of a bigger transit system. It’s part of a bigger vision for our regional transit system. Our public transportation does not do well without a strong downtown and downtowns don’t do well without a strong public transportation. There is a strong tie between them. The cities are the engines, economic engines of the future, and today we’re in an area that’s growing.”

Thoburn agreed. In a meeting Nov. 12 he suggested the JTA subcommittee consider choosing the option that might best to satisfy the city’s future needs and not let cost drive its decision. There are many sources available to fund the project, he said. “Funding shouldn’t drive the vision.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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