What is a Gadgetbahn?

A gadgetbahn is a speculative transportation concept that proposes to solve planning and financial issues via some sort of magical techno-fix, likely some technology that doesn’t even exist yet. The word is a portemanteau of the English “Gadget” and the German word “bahn”, which means rail or train.

Source: What’s a Gadgetbahn?

Thoughts on the U2C

The Jacksonville Transportation Agency’s mission statement reads:

“To improve Northeast Florida’s economy, environment and quality of life by providing safe, reliable, efficient and sustainable multimodal transportation services and facilities.”

You’ll notice that nowhere in that statement does it mention chasing the future, cost be forgotten. And yet, it appears that for the last several years that’s exactly what the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) has done.

On the JTA’s website, a technology evaluation report from 2017 includes, quote,

*“The driverless automated transit solution is evolving at such a rapid pace; one can expect that within a short amount of time, it will be able to accommodate most urban transit needs and solutions.” *

My concern is that, that isn’t actually true. In numerous reports published since, the autonomous vehicle industry has reported greater and more technically complicated challenges in making this technology possible. And especially when companies like Ford, General Motors, Uber, Amazon, Tesla, Google, have all invested billions into this technology and not yet found the solutions required for it to work, I can’t help but question what the JTA’s place in this industry is right now, especially at such high cost to taxpayers.

And let’s talk about cost. JTA officials reported that a streetcar system would cost about $28 million per mile. At this point, the U2C is at least $38 million per mile. And if you subtract the Bay Street Corridor’s mileage it’s well over $50 million a mile for the rest of the system. JTA’s website calls the U2C “the most cost-effective approach,” and based on what we now know, that no longer appears to be the case.

And it’s concerning that this project is being talked about at such cost while there are such badly needed transit improvements in downtown. Between the Emerald Trail, which I hope can be included, and the fact that for a fraction of the U2C, we can fully return Amtrak to downtown and build a terminal that is ready for future commuter rail. And then there are all the additional opportunities that Council has brought up today.

I’ve spoken with several researchers in the fields of urban planning and transportation, and after talking to them about this project, they told me a term for projects like this. It’s “gadgetbahn.” Mr Ford mentioned today losing staff to Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for building gadgetbahns. Unfortunately, we don’t have the oil money for gadgetbahns in Jacksonville. Every cent proposed to go into this system is coming from a normal person who is just trying to fill up their car to get to work in the morning, or get their kids to school, or take one of those family trips we’ve been missing for so long. We can’t afford to bet that JTA is going to be the first city in the entire United States of America to discover the miracle of self-driving cars.

This lastly brings me to my final concern, which is that this project has largely proceeded on a premise that was inaccurately disclosed to the public from the start. If it was always a nonstarter to build any more elevated guideway, why was “keeping and expanding” the Skyway ever even an option? And was the public properly informed of the option to decommission the Skyway and replace it with proven options in other cities like streetcars? I can’t help but feel concerned that the JTA has not been entirely honest about the nature of this project.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about the future today. The problem with that is that as taxpayers, we can’t make assumptions based on hypothetical future capability. We have to make a decision this year, based on the current capability. And the current capability isn’t there. Let me be clear, I strongly believe that the JTA should develop downtown transportation in Jacksonville. But to dedicate this much in solely local money for just this system, is fiscally irresponsible. And I expect some degree of fiscal responsibility, especially when there are known, proven options that we do not have to experiment with or fully bear the cost of.

So to conclude, the JTA should understand its responsibility to find practical, proven transportation solutions for Jacksonville’s challenges and needs. And as a taxpayer, I don’t believe the U2C accomplishes that. And based on what I know about this project, the JTA and City Council should find alternative solutions to spend this $379 million on.

Guest editorial by Marcus Nelson