The background

A Skyway vehicle leaves the Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center (JTA)

Jacksonville continues to mull over a major funding infusion by way of a six-cent increase to Duval County’s gas tax. In a proposal that Mayor Lenny Curry announced a month ago, the city would extend the current six-cent gas tax another 10 years, to 2046, and add another 6 cents onto the figure. The Local Option Gas Tax (LOGT) would contribute about $30 million a year for a total of $930.2 million, enabling the city to start tackling badly needed improvements such as removing septic tanks and updating infrastructure.

However, some elements of the plan are beginning to face significant pushback and questioning. For instance, JTA proposes dedicating $378,840,000 toward its plan to replace the current obsolete Skyway automated people mover trains with smaller autonomous vehicles and expand the downtown system to adjacent neighborhoods. That amount is about 40% of the total, over the next 25 years. In addition, the project’s estimated cost has risen 40% over the last two years and promises to increase as we learn more about the needs of emerging but unproven autonomous technology. With this in mind, we believe it is time for City Council members and the community to evaluate alternatives that will significantly drop the amount of funds earmarked for the Skyway conversion in the draft gas tax projects list. To kick off the discussion, here are four alternative options worthy of additional analysis and debate.

1. Take a traditional approach to transit funding

An autonomous vehicle under testing by JTA.

Reducing the Skyway ask would free up potential revenue for projects with far less risk and far greater public buy-in, like the Emerald Trail, returning passenger rail back downtown and improving the local bus system. In other cities, public transportation projects similar in scope to the Skyway proposal aren’t counting on all the money coming from a single local source. For example, a 13.5-mile commuter rail line with seven stations is progressing in South Florida. Miami-Dade County’s estimated contribution toward the $345 million project is $162.25 million. The expectation is that FDOT and the Federal Transit Administration’s capital investment grant program will cover the remaining cost. If Jacksonville took a similar approach with the Skyway’s U2C conversion in the LOGT proposal, it would free up as much as $200 million which could be dedicated instead to a variety of needed projects throughout the city.

A rendering of the U2C ramping from the former Skyway’s elevated infrastructure in Brooklyn.

2. Separate the U2C concept from the Skyway

A model of the already funded $44 million U2C extension that would be built on Bay Street in Downtown. Planned to be constructed at-grade, the project allows for further exploration of emerging technologies locally without touching or retrofitting the Skyway itself.

The lion’s share of the the capital costs of the U2C are directly related to retrofitting the Skyway infrastructure and system to accommodate autonomous shuttle buses. That cost alone amounts to $240 million of the $379 million figure identified in the LOGT for the U2C. This suggests that, in insisting on removing and replacing the Skyway trains, we could forcing ourselves into a solution that isn’t the most fiscally responsible. This is especially worrisome considering that according to JTA’s own documents, it could be another 15 to 20 years before the U2C plan is fully implemented as currently conceived.

Considering the autonomous vehicles JTA is working with aren’t designed to run on elevated tracks, but rather on the street, perhaps they should stay on the street. Even without the gas tax, the three-mile Bay Street Innovation Corridor, which would bring autonomous vehicles down Bay Street to the Stadium District, is fully funded at $44 million. This demonstrates that the U2C could be designed as a completely at-grade system that extends out from current Skyway stations to new areas the trains don’t currently reach. In this scenario, the city saves at least $240 million by simply not removing the current trains.

An at-grade vision of what the Bay Street Innovation Corridor could resemble. Limiting the U2C concept into a 100 percent at-grade system could complement the Skyway without the need of taxpayers investing hundreds of millions into a retrofit of the Skyway itself.