The former Jacksonville Terminal in Downtown was once the largest passenger railroad station south of Washington, DC.

As we wrote last month, the City of Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) are proposing an ambitious new concept: a gas tax increase that could generate $930 million for infrastructure over the next 25 years. In our opinion, the proposal is a great idea with some caveats that should be hammered out before City Council votes on it.

Left out: the Emerald Trail and Amtrak

The restoration of Denver’s Union Station has generated hundreds of millions in Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in the immediate vicinity of the multimodal transportation center.

The most significant issue is what’s left out. Jacksonville boosters overuse the term “gamechanging” when it comes to Downtown projects, but as we speak the city has the opportunity to execute two different transportation projects that easily fit the description within the next few years. We’re talking about the Emerald Trail and the potential return of Amtrak (and other passenger rail) to the historic Downtown train station, currently the Prime Osborn Convention Center. Both lack dedicated funding and coordination, and both would be easy wins for the gas tax funding.

Emerald Trail

A rendering of the proposed Emerald Trail through Downtown Jacksonville.

The Emerald Trail is a proposed chain of interconnected parks, bike/pedestrian paths and amenities spreading across Downtown and surrounding Urban Core neighborhoods. It is currently moving forward in pieces as we speak, most recently with the LaVilla Link set to break ground this fall.

The Emerald Trail is an extremely ambitious long-term project, and one of Jacksonville’s best ideas in years. An injection of funding could speed the process and finally give Jacksonville the great urban park system and transformative infrastructure project it deserves within only a few years.

Bringing Amtrak Downtown

A rendering of JTA’s 2004 plans to bring passenger rail back to Downtown.

Built in 1919, the Jacksonville Terminal served as the city’s train station until 1974, when Amtrak moved its service to a smaller “Amshack” station off New Kings Road. In 1986, the city turned the historic station into the Prime Osborn Convention Center. Since 1993, the city’s longterm plans have included restoring the old terminal to use as a passenger rail station. It’s been vetted several times over the years, but the big obstacle has always been a lack of funding to make the move a reality.

This project is especially timely since the federal government’s plans for expanding Amtrak include additional routes for Jacksonville. This is the perfect opportunity to bring rail back to Downtown, and it has the potential to spark even more investment, including by the privately owned higher speed rail service Brightline, which has already announced its hopes of reaching Jacksonville eventually. JTA itself is also exploring establishing commuter rail between Jacksonville and St. Augustine. Currently, the draft gas tax project list only includes $3.4 million for a study and some limited design work related to the rail terminal project.

With funding being the hurdle stopping the return passenger rail to the Prime Osborn, the gas tax provides the perfect opportunity to finally realize this 30 year old dream. As with the Emerald Trail, this is a potentially transformative project that could be completed, sooner rather than later.