The Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) Skyway’s origins date back to a comprehensive mobility plan that was envisioned for greater Jacksonville during the early 1970s. Discussion of the Skyway becoming a form of transportation in Jacksonville began in the 70s, as people began to consider a downtown people mover as a possible solution to traffic congestion and pollution problems Jacksonville was facing at the time, as well as a potential solution to the 1970s oil crisis.

The initial feasibility study was conducted by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and City of Jacksonville’s planning department In 1977, the study was handed over to JTA. Early proposals recommended a system that would extend over four miles and connect adjacent neighborhoods downtown. This downtown people mover would also serve as the first phase of a 42-mile, $800 million countywide rapid transit system. It was envisioned that the people mover would carry as many as 57,000 passengers a day.

In 1985, Jacksonville was approved to receive federal funding for the downtown people mover system. At the time, Jacksonville was only one of seven cities that would be participating in this “People Mover” program, where the Federal Government would provide eighty percent of the project funding.

Unanticipated budget restraints resulted in the initial phase of the project only extending two and a half miles. The first 0.7-mile segment, running from the Prime Osborn Convention Center to Central Station was completed in 1992.

In 1994, a new supplier, The Bombardier Corporation, was awarded the contract for the remaining 1.8 miles of phase one, as well as a technology upgrade for the entire Skyway system. This would be completed in 1999.

The existing Skyway route, completed in 1999, overlayed over the original proposed route. The initial 0.7-mile segment that opened in 1992 is shown in green.

As early as 2002, reports indicated that the Skyway was not producing nearly the amount of revenues or traffic that it had originally been projected to.

In 2012, the Skyway, still underused, was temporarily made free to ride. While this fare-free approach was implemented only for the sake of upgrading the payment method system, this spurred a huge jump in ridership. As a result, this fare-free system has been adopted all the way through September of next year. In light of this new found success, the current director of JTA, Nat Ford, wants to expand the Skyway to serve 604 apartment units and 67,870 square feet of retail currently under construction in Brooklyn.

The opinions of locals and Floridians alike are mixed. For some, the potential of the Skyway is still strong in their minds. For others, they think the Skyway is a waste of money and the “laughing stock” of downtown Jax.

With this in mind, I reached out to three prominent figures in the area to get their opinions. The following responses have been recorded from Rod Sullivan, Professor and Director at Florida Coastal School of Law; Bob Mann, a retired transportation consultant and MetroJacksonville.com board member; and Ennis Davis, an urban/transportation planner at Ghyabi & Associates and co-founder of MetroJacksonville.com.

KP: What’s your relationship to the JTA Skyway? Do you have a professional affiliation?

RS: I don’t have a professional affiliation with the Skyway. I am a law professor and Director of the Transportation and Logistics Program at Florida Coastal School of Law. Before I was a lawyer, I was a marine engineer, so understand transportation is something I am professionally trained in.

As part of the program, I reach classes in Autonomous (self-driving) vehicles, and climate change.

BM: As a transportation professional, I was the original ‘anti-Skyway’ crusader in Jacksonville. I actually answered many of these questions back in 1981! See: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2007-nov-27-years-later-jacksonville-transit#.VCBHqktOgdI

ED: I’m an urban planner who is employed by a transportation engineering and planning firm with an office in downtown Jacksonville. I’m also an urban core advocate who has used the Skyway occasionally for years to access different areas of the Northbank and Southbank.

KP: Why is it that the Skyway does or doesn’t work?

RS: The Skyway doesn’t work for two reasons which are common to all passenger rail transportation systems: high energy usage and low ridership.

-High Energy Usage: To operate the Skyway takes about 450,000 kWh per month. Here are the actual figures. I have rounded down from the 481,000 in order to give the Skyway the “benefit of the doubt.” These figures were derived from the actual JEA records, which were obtained in a public records request:

  • HIGH CO2: To produce a kWh of electrical power we, in Jacksonville, produce about 1.5 lbs. of CO2. At 1.5 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour, the operation of the Skyway produces approximately 8,000,000 pounds of carbon dioxide each year. That’s the same amount of CO2 as is produced by burning 435,000 gallons of gasoline (1 gallon gasoline = 18 lbs. of CO2).

CO2 and Energy wouldn’t be a problem if we got our energy from nuclear power. An average nuclear power plant produced 11.8 billion kWh a year, so it would take 0.006% of the production of a single nuclear power plant to produce all the energy the Skyway would need, but we have no nuclear energy in Jacksonville. We get our electrical power from coal and natural gas.

I always get asked “but what about solar and wind?” Solar PV energy only produces power 5 hours on an average day, and only 220 days in an average year in Jacksonville. We have no way to store that power, so you can’t run a transportation system on solar energy.

Then I get asked “But what about California. Their high speed rail is going to be solar!” No, it’s not. It is going to run on natural gas. The California plan is to build renewable energy sources for things other than the high speed rail, and then offset the natural gas that will be used to operate their rail system.

  • LOW RIDERSHIP

Urban mass transit systems which work, do so in markets where the population is located in a straight line, such as along a shoreline or river. The population of Jacksonville is located radially around the city center. Each mile you get away from the city center, the farther you get away from a rail station.

BM: Pedestrian scale is missing, the infrastructure is massive, very expensive and as a result the product is trains that are too small to ever play an effective role in mass transit (and I’m not talking about them being just two cars, it’s the scale of the trains that is too small). Unless people fly, they don’t engage the Skyway at eye level, thus NOBODY interacts with it as a constant.

ED: Operationally, the Skyway works just fine. With headways of seven minutes or less, it’s the most reliable and utilized transit route in JTA’s network. In terms of overall ridership, it has historically struggled because we have done everything possible to set it up for failure. While there is density within select areas of the core to support mass transit investment, the Skyway does not effectively serve or directly access most of these locations. In addition, the 42-mile rapid transit system originally envisioned to feed the Skyway with riders from other areas of our region was never constructed. We’ve incentivized companies to leave downtown and subsidized parking in downtown. For example, the City of Jacksonville pays millions annually to subsidize the operations of the new courthouse and Veterans Memorial Arena garages. An additional $3.5 million in “incentives” is being invested in Parador Partner’s parking garage currently under construction across the street from the Jacksonville Landing. Furthermore, it also doesn’t help that for years, JTA’s bus routes duplicated the Skyway route, setting both modes up for failure by making them compete for a limited pool of riders. Last, we’ve ignored forgot about the importance of having modifying land use policies to support the transit investment.

KP: Consider the original proposed goals of the Skyway. Did it meet all of these? Just some?

RS: The Skyway has met none of its goals. People don’t ride it to work or shop, it doesn’t reduce air pollution. It doesn’t substantially reduce traffic.

BM: No more buses downtown? FAIL Park and ride? FAIL Mitigates downtown traffic? FAIL Part of a regional ‘rapid transit’ system? FAIL

ED: No. The Skyway was originally intended to help relieve downtown traffic congestion and parking issues in compact and crowded urban environment. When originally proposed, the Northbank had twice as many workers as it does today and Sears, JCPenney, May-Cohens, Ivey’s, Furchgott’s, and Levy-Wolf all operated major department stores within walking distance of Hemming Park. In 1975, projections indicated that downtown would have 18,000 residents by 1990. Instead the opposite has occurred. That retail scene died by 1990 and in 2014, downtown still has less than 4,000 residents. In short, downtown has declined to the point where there is no traffic congestion and where there are more parking spaces available than people frequenting the district to park in them. In reality, places like the Skyway and Jacksonville Landing become red herrings to the major issue. We’ve subsidized other areas of the city for decades at the expense of our historic downtown core and surrounding communities. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If we want investments like the Skyway to be successful, we’ll have to reverse our unsustainable land development strategies and growth patterns.

KP: Originally, the Skyway was supposed to connect downtown with Springfield, Shands, and the Sports District, but the contractors decided against it. What impacts do you think this had on the success/failures of the project?

RS: There is insufficient population density in Springfield, Shands or the Sports district to justify an urban rail system. If the Skyway had been extended there, it would be a bigger failure than it currently is. High costs, high energy wastage, and low ridership would have continued.

BM: It wasn’t the contractors that decided against it, they would have been happy to build the thing to Daytona Beach if we would have asked them. It was JTA and COJ that got cold feet and quit. Also you left off the ‘Riverside’ line which was supposed to go down Riverside then angle to May at the curve in Forrest Street, following May to Roselle, then west on Roselle over the interstate near the FDOT HQ.

ED: If I recall, anti-Skyway sentiment stopped it from being built as originally proposed. The major negative impact here is that the system never reached original terminus points, such as Shands UF Health Jacksonville and the Sports District, that would have feed it with more riders on a more consistent basis than a seldom used obsolete convention center and hard to access parking garage does today. This situation would be like building half of the Buckman Bridge and then complaining it’s a waste because no one uses it. In addition, a system that penetrates a variety of urban neighborhoods would have allowed more opportunity for the integration of supportive land use policies around stations. As proven by every successful transit system in the country, this is essential for incrementally increasing built-in density around transit investments.

KP: How does the JTA Skyway compare to other “People Mover Projects?” What successes or failures did it have over these other project? Why?

RS: No comment provided.

BM: It was originally supposed to be a people mover, but the technology changed to monorail around 2002. Typically people movers function more like moving sidewalks, a fluid, large capacity, very short trip that simply keeps coming. The change to monorail set us up for the potential of real transit use, as monorails function more like conventional trains, a clockwork system of scheduled, interconnecting, longer routes.

ED: Both the JTA Skyway (4,100 daily riders) and Detroit Peoplemover (5,300 daily riders) have struggled partially because the downtowns they were meant to serve have dramatically declined over the last 30 years. However, tThey have also struggled because they are representative of incomplete and poorly integrated transit networks. On the other hand, Miami’s Metromover has seen much higher ridership (+35,000 daily riders) and is a catalyst for infill transit oriented development because that community has heavy rail and commuter rail lines feeding the system with riders and support land use policies that encourage dense infill development around its stations.

The Miami Metromover: Omni Loop (blue), Downtown Loop (orange), Brickell Loop (purple), The Metromover has attracted higher usage due to connectivity with Metrorail (green), Tri-Rail (light blue) and supportive land use policies in and around downtown Miami.

Miami Metromover

The Detroit People Mover

KP: Ultimately, what do you think would be best to do with the monorail system?

RS: From an environmental perspective, the best thing to do would be to shut it down. It doesn’t need to be removed, but it should stop operating. 8 million lbs. of CO2 per year is bad for the environment.

The internet and autonomous vehicles hold out the best hope for urban transportation. The internet and video-conferencing can be used to reduce the need for people to travel downtown. The more people shop by internet, the less travel they will need.

Autonomous vehicles will be lighter, faster, and have fewer accidents. They are the future.

BM: Either modest expansion to the original goals of Stadium (area), UF Hospital, Forrest Street and San Marco; Change the system, remove the monorail beams and install streetcar tracks… In which case it might still make sense to continue the elevated portion as far east as the stadium district and over the FEC RY to San Marco.

ED: Keep it fare free, integrate the system with the existing transit network and coordinate downtown growth and redevelopment around its stations. This means, JTA bus routes should not duplicate the path of the Skyway or it’s stations. This also means the City of Jacksonville should stop subsidizing parking with the downtown core. When the time comes, also consider salvaging as much existing infrastructure as possible and converting the technology into a different mode if such options prove to be more feasible then maintaining an increasing obsolete transit technology.

KP: The Skyway has been looked down upon frequently as unsuccessful. However, in 2012, the Skyway was named the nation’s fastest growing fixed mass transit for the first three quarters of the year, based on average weekday ridership. How does this factor in to public disapproval of the Skyway?

RS: No comment provided.

BM: It doesn’t, the public disapproval comes from a misunderstanding that the Skyway took money from ‘schools, parks, port, roads…etc.’ then failed. Of course that isn’t true, the Skyway funding has nothing to do with those things. Frustration, people have erroneously believed that ‘monorails are the trains of the future,’ HARDLY, they have been around almost as long as regular railroads, if they were the train of the future we wouldn’t have had a golden spike, it would have been the ‘golden beam’. Add that misconception to the paralysis that has kept the little system from ever attaining any goals, and it adds up to a perception of failure of the Skyway rather then failure of JTA, COJ.

ED: I’m not sure the public disapproves of the Skyway or mass transit. Public surveys conducted in recent years indicate that the public would like to see additional funds dedicated to transit, bicycle, and pedestrian projects at the expense of roadway projects. Instead, it can be argued the public disapproves of any mode of mobility or public investments that don’t adequately meet their needs. Whether it’s a Skyway, intercity rail, light rail, bus rapid transit, managed lanes, or new roads or modern streetcar, fixed transit our transportation investments needs to connect people to where they want to go and be efficient in getting them there.

KP: A proposal was recently put forward by JTA to expand and enhance the Skyway. Again, how does this factor into the public disapproval the project has received? Is this expansion a good idea?

RS: No comment provided.

BM: A case of too little, too late, they will either need to go for a useful base system, streetcar conversion or quit and count their losses.

ED: From what I can tell, there’s just as many people for expanding the Skyway to Brooklyn as those who may be against it. The proposed extension of the Skyway is just adding a station to their existing operations and maintenance facility on Riverside Avenue in Brooklyn. Personally, I’d like JTA to look at a more cost effective and “no-frills” way of developing a station at that site. We currently have 604 multi-family housing units and nearly 70,000 square feet of retail and entertainment options under development within a 1/4-mile radius of the Skyway’s operations center in Brooklyn. There’s potential for additional development, including a YMCA and health-based boutique hotel. All of this development is severed from the rest of downtown by McCoys Creek, the Acosta Bridge, and the St. Johns River. Our so-called downtown circulator already has track across the street, serves the Northbank, and crosses the river to access the Southbank. It’s a no-brainer, in my humble opinion, to have a “no-frills” station (to keep the capital costs down) at their Brooklyn site, which would connect downtown employees and residents to Brooklyn and vise versa.

The proposed Skyway extension would connect several infill development projects currently under construction in Brooklyn with the rest of downtown.

KP: What are your opinions on how this could factor into or effect the All Aboard Florida project proposal for Jacksonville?

RS: No comment provided.

BM: The Skyway would be a much more effective component of the AAF connectivity if JTA/FDOT were not determined to build a JRTC with virtually no connectivity scattered all over LaVilla

ED: AAF will be an intercity rail system. Assuming the initial line between Miami and Orlando is a success, there’s a chance that an extension to Jacksonville could come online as a future phase. In the event that happens, it’s important for our local transit network to connect riders from all over our region to a centralized intermodal point. That centralized point appears to be the old Jacksonville Terminal (Prime Osborn), which the Skyway already serves. In essence, AAF is just as important to the Skyway and our local bus network as it would be to them. AAF would serve as a regional transit mode that would feed riders into the Skyway. Just as original advocates believed was needed 30 years ago.

KP: Lastly, do you think fixed mass transit is an essential need for linking downtown with adjacent pedestrian scale neighborhoods and spurring Transit Oriented Development (TOD)?

RS: No comment provided.

BM: It’s not just essential, it’s an absolute requirement.

ED: Yes. I do believe the fixed mass transit tying downtown to surrounding walkable urban core neighborhoods is essential for creating a market rate environment for pedestrian scaled transit oriented development. All the proof we need is evident in the majority of large cities across the country. An overwhelming majority increased in density due to streetcar systems of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Similar patterns are also taking place in cities such as Washington, DC, Miami, Denver, Salt Lake City, Charlotte, and San Diego, that have invested in fixed transit with supportive land use policies over the last three decades.

Article by Kristen Pickrell