JTA moves toward final Skyway plan
Jacksonville's Skyway.

Skyway

The fifth meeting of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority Skyway Subcommittee and Skyway Advisory Group happened on Monday, as the JTA gets ever closer to divining an action plan for the 30-year-old people-mover.

Options run the gamut, from decommissioning the structure and leaving it subject to its own obsolescence, to replacing the cars, to expanding the Skyway outward, toward other Urban Core areas, such as the Brooklyn area of Riverside or EverBank Field.

The purpose of the Monday meeting: to develop draft policy statements and to evaluate “economic considerations” for the way forward before the Dec. 3 meeting of the subcommittee and the Dec. 10 meeting of the JTA Board.

Survey outreach has been successful, with nearly 1,000 responses already, the bulk of which (80 percent) want to keep the Skyway and expand the system, according to the JTA’s Brad Thoburn, who added that it is not a scientific survey, given that it’s a self-selecting group.

Fourteen percent of survey respondents ride occasionally, which is a number below actual usage patterns of the Skyway, by any reasonable estimate, with narrative comments provided describing the Skyway as a “sign of progress” found in “modern cities.”

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The survey will be finalized Dec. 1.

After presenting the survey’s preliminary response, the agenda turned to economic overview.

JTA contends that there is an average saving of $9.515 per annum for users of mass transit, as well as time savings, improved air quality, and “easy access to key destinations and attractions, which can support the state tourism industry.”

As well, said Thoburn, the “sense of permanence” of fixed guideway systems drives economic development and impact.

Thoburn noted that, in Jacksonville’s case, the institution of the Skyway coincided with the downturn of downtown, a process abetted by changes in consumer patterns between 1973, when the system was proposed, and 1989, when downtown was a ghost town, with retail at the malls and the ascendance of suburban office parks.

“On top of that, the Skyway was never fully built out,” said Thoburn.

Downtown housed 100,000 jobs in 1973; a quarter of that in 1989. Now, at 40,000 jobs, downtown is on the upswing, but not booming.

Despite this, JTA estimates that there is $687 million of “added value” within a quarter mile of the Skyway, though “it’s hard to say that any of it happened solely because of the Skyway,” adds Thoburn.

“If we were to expand the Skyway,” Thoburn cautioned, “we would need a more thorough economic” analysis.

Despite this, a growth strategy would be predicated on millennials and retirees, via a “vibrant urban core with more mobility options.” And as a way to facilitate peripheral parking for businesses via the people mover.

The policy statement discussion followed, with caveats such as the FTA being able to demand repayment if the Skyway is abandoned, and the relationship with the FTA being imperiled by abandoning the people mover.

As well, FTA is not amenable to offering relief.

There was some skepticism from the committee, on issues including the operating times of the Skyway and whether the FTA would actually insist upon payback. However, the tone of the agreement, according to committee member Jeanne Miller, is that this is a “clawback clause” that can be enforced and, if violated, can come with punitive measures.

Husein Cumber, another committee member, noted the “dilemma” is that JTA and the FTA “invested in a technology that is no longer supported by the manufacturer,” and that a “conversation with a partner” about a “decision made years ago” that, in retrospect, was “not the best decision,” might be warranted.

“I don’t hear this committee talking about eliminating transit from downtown,” Cumber said. “I want to enter into a conversation with them as a partner, as opposed to them as a funding entity.”

Councilman Tommy Hazouri then questioned the process itself.

“We ought to have a plan,” Hazouri said, saying that he didn’t like the plan 30 years ago.

“The bottom line for me is I don’t mind going to the federal government, but I don’t want to go with our tail between our legs … I just want to see us come out with something that’s positive,” Hazouri said, objecting to the Skyway being elevated above retail.

“If we don’t expect anything out of the [federal government], we aren’t going to get it,” Hazouri added, saying that long-range planning is essential.

Questions abound though, including how much external support in funding JTA would get from an overhaul of the system.

With this in mind, Cumber wants to go to the FTA and explain that this is a 2½-mile system with no revenue, and “have a conversation” about the future of the system.

“For us to assume that 2½-mile system exists as status quo,” Cumber added, “is not accurate,” given the emergence of Uber and other decentralized approaches to mass transit.

“At the end of the day, FTA knows that each one of these scenarios requires them to be a funding partner,” Cumber said, voicing concerns that “we’re getting trapped into this 2 ½ mile system” that precludes a real discussion of the future of mobility.

“There are 75 million millennials who don’t look at transportation the same way they did in the past,” Cumber said, voicing the need for a solution beyond fixed structures and central planning.

“Until we understand those built out costs, I think we’re making this decision in a vacuum,” Cumber says.

From there, a discussion of the draft policy statements, which included the following:

  • It is “important to have a high-quality downtown transit circulator.”
  • “JTA and the city should make the best use” of this “significant investment by the taxpayers.”
  • “The Skyway should be modernized.”
  • “Future plans must support the vision for downtown development.”
  • “Extensions should be considered” to help the Skyway reach its “full potential.”
  • “The ultimate Skyway solution should be a collective effort among multiple stakeholders,” such as “federal, state, local” and “private.”

Those in attendance rated the statements on a scale of 1-4, with 4 as the highest. All had strong support; the strongest support was for the first, fifth, and sixth, with one and six garnering unanimous enthusiasm.

The least enthusiasm? For the proposition that “JTA and the city should make the best use of the investment” in the Skyway.

From there, the discussion went to how to refine the policy statements to create a perception of untrammeled enthusiasm. Essentially, moving people from 2 or 3 to 4, by making minor alterations in linguistic framework, such as altering the “vision for downtown development” to one using language referring to the Downtown Investment Authority.

What is clear: the stakes are high. Skyway revamping would be, like the original, a generational commitment, one that must align with a larger transportation vision, one that satisfies local skeptics and creates buy in from the private sector and governmental superstructures.

There is, of course, skepticism. Hazouri pointed out that for many in the community, the survey notwithstanding, the Skyway is considered to be a “joke.”

However, his objection was glossed over.

The subcommittee recommendations will be subject to public comment in December.

A.G. Gancarski

A.G. Gancarski has written for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. He is based in Northeast Florida. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter: @AGGancarski



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