On Tuesday, Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO Nat Ford offered an “lunch and learn” update of capital projects to a group of city officials, staffers, and the occasional journalist looking for a free sandwich at City Hall.
Discussed: Blueprint 2020, which Ford described as the “roadmap of initiatives” for the next five years.
“It’s a host of multimodal transportation projects happening at the same time,” Ford said.
From there, Ford presented a ROI update, which was positive. A 6 percent uptick in ridership, since new routes were instituted (for the first time in 30 years in many cases), with double-digit boosts on weekends, “primarily due to later service hours.”
The Capital Projects discussed included the First Coast Flyer, a CNG bus that will arrive every ten minutes during peak hours down a few high-traffic corridors, representing the bus of the future, including built in Wi-Fi and “smart stops” that allow passengers to know when the next bus will arrive. The whole system, planned to be in place by 2019, should theoretically abate traffic on high-density routes.
Ford says this will be the largest system of this kind in the Southeast, implemented in phases in each December in the coming years; total cost for the system: $124 million.
The compressed natural gas station, servicing 100 buses in the next five years, is expected to be online in the next few weeks; Ford describes this “very successful project” and “world-class facility” on Myrtle Avenue as a public-private partnership, which is saving the city $6 million in construction costs.
Also discussed: MobilityWorks, which includes road and mobility corridor projects, with $100.5 million budgeted for this “robust capital program” in the next five years. Despite “pressure on that budget,” the goal is to get every project completed, with a preference toward design-build execution.
Another big talker: the St. Johns River Ferry transition, which is still slated for the “March time frame of next year,” after the haulout and slip wall repairs are completed.
JTA is still subsidizing the Ferry to the tune of $33,333 per month, and money is on the mind of all parties: specifically, capital expenditures not covered by grants.
Ford expressed optimism that federal and state funding would come in the form of grants for the Ferry.
Also discussed: the Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center, expected for partial completion by 2017. Located near the Prime Osborn Convention Center on the western edge of the downtown area, this is expected to be a “gateway to downtown” which would develop the LaVilla area, and include a bus transfer facility with access to rental cars and an intercity bus terminal, with access to Greyhound.
As well, preliminary discussions with Amtrak are being held to relocate the train station to the area by the convention center.
Finally, the Skyway, which Ford says “needs a lot of attention.”
Ford advanced his talking points, regarding ridership growing, with “this year being another record year” for the fare-free people mover.
“The Skyway is 25 years of age,” Ford said, and there are “challenges in keeping it running,” which have been spotlighted in some detail in local media of late, regarding outmoded equipment that is no longer in commercial production.
Even after four subcommittee meetings, and a public forum, the subtext of Ford’s comments was that the final resolution of the Skyway’s fate is not settled. Decommissioning and repurposing are still on the table, as are replacement cars and even “prudent extensions of the Skyway to where we know there is development activity imminent.”
Refurbishing cars, says Ford, is a surprisingly problematic option, which he likened to restoring a 25 year old car; the industry prefers to sell new vehicles. Other examples of the “25 year old problem” would be structural issues with the concrete structure itself, uniquely designed for Skyway cars.
The final recommendation is due by the year’s end.
“We’re working through that decision; it’s going to be tough,” said Ford.