3. Modernize Skyway cars and focus on land use

The Bombardier Innovia 256 was proposed as a potential replacement vehicle for the aging Skyway trains in the 2015 JTA Skyway Technology Assessment Report. (Wikipedia)

This option takes a dramatically different approach from JTA’s proposed Skyway conversion and expansion plan. Acknowledging that downtown’s continued decline since the 1970s has played a significant role in the Skyway’s ability to generate ridership, this alternative would focus less on the Skyway itself and more on deliberately increasing density around each of the Skyway’s existing eight stations and the future station proposed in Brooklyn. In this scenario, the aging Skyway would be modernized but still remain as an elevated automated people mover (APM).

Acknowledging the research in the 2015 JTA Skyway Technology Assessment Report, Skyway modernization could involve the replacement of existing Skyway vehicles with a new and more common APM vehicle such as the Bombardier Innovia 256. Like the other options, this approach would reduce the cost of the Skyway conversion without eliminating JTA’s ability to test autonomous vehicles in a real life urban environment on the Bay Street Innovation Corridor. JTA could then make extensions based on whichever form of transit makes the most sense, rather than attempting all of them with autonomous vehicles. For example, autonomous vehicles could still be used for an extension on the street into Springfield, but trains would likely make more sense for a no-frills extension into San Marco, which would parallel the FEC railroad corridor at grade.

A Metromover train approaching Brickell City Centre Station in Miami. The South Florida sibling of the Skyway is a 4.4 mile automated peoplemover that averages 33,000 passengers a day. The Metromover’s higher ridership is a result of land use policies that have created density around the peoplemover’s stations and other region wide transit systems that fed it with riders.

4. Focus on a different system altogether

The 4.8 mile El Paso Streetcar system opened in 2018 at the cost of $20 million per mile. Currently, the 10.2 mile U2C is estimated to cost $42 million per mile.

At some point, even an ambitious project with the best initial intentions can become fiscally irresponsible for taxpayers. We’ve already reached the point where this project is significantly higher in costs than building a streetcar system from scratch. In the last two years, the estimated price to convert the Skyway into use for autonomous vehicles has ballooned 40% from $300 million to $423 million. With so many unknowns, without a doubt, the price will continue to rise. Keeping in mind that $44 million has already been allocated for a three mile autonomous vehicle corridor between downtown and TIAA Bank Field, along Bay Street, there is no real need to include the Skyway in the exploration of autonomous technology locally.

An autonomous train runs on road as a test in October 2017 in Zhuzhou, Hunan Province of China. (Wikipedia)

Furthermore, the LOGT could be a one time opportunity to do something on a grand scale, that provides impact on the local community in and outside of the Downtown district and adjacent urban core neighborhoods. In this dramatic alternative, a decision could be made to do nothing with the Skyway, in terms of dedication of LOGT funds, outside of minor modifications and repairs to allow it to live out its shelf life. In this scenario, there could be no need to dedicate forty percent of LOGT funds to the system or pay back the feds for tearing the structure down. Instead, the lion’s share of the $379 million identified for the U2C in the LOGT could go to improve a known quantity like the existing local bus system or fund something new that is proven to stimulate economic development like a starter commuter rail, light rail or streetcar line. As one reason the Skyway has struggled is that it lacks further transit options reaching into neighborhoods that could feed it with riders, an option like a streetcar line could be exactly what the Skyway needs to increase ridership without spending hundreds of millions on it.

Editorial by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com