Is the Jacksonville Transportation Authority getting ahead of the curve?
To its credit, the JTA is trying to get away from the seldom-used Skyway, which cost $185 million to build in the 1980s – $42 million of it from local taxpayers.
Currently it is costing $6 million a year to operate. There were 2,740 trips a day on average in the past fiscal year — and it is a free ride.
The JTA has a concept to abandon the monorail idea and use the existing elevated tracks to operate small, driverless vehicles that can be linked together.
Rather than extending the tracks, planners would bring the vehicles down to ground level and run them to terminal points at the hospital complexes on Eighth Street and Southside, the sports complex, and to the growing Five Points area.
The reach would be quadrupled.
JTA was boxed in. Extending the elevated track would cost as much as $100 million a mile. Replacing the aging trains would cost at least $4 million each. Ending the service or tearing down the tracks would bring on repayment obligations estimated at $50 million.
Certainly, the driverless vehicles would be less expensive to build and operate than extending the Skyway. And, it looks nifty.
But if you look closely at the plan, it also would involve a river crossing at what would have to be a substantial cost.
Furthermore, the crossing would connect two places that haven’t even been built.
The Shipyards project on the Northbank and The District on the Southbank exist only in the minds of two developers, who may never build them without huge contributions from Jacksonville taxpayers.
The JTA is thinking large. The new system, called U2C, would be highly integrated with existing bus lines, including express lines from distant points at the Beaches and Orange Park, for example. Riders would use a phone app to track, book or pay for rides. It might even be coordinated with private services such as Uber, and routes could be changed on demand.
The previously explored idea of light rail seems to be losing favor, which probably is a win for local taxpayers.
But it makes little or no sense for the JTA to go much further in planning a river crossing unless or until the planned developments actually seem to be a possibility.
Possibly from a commendable degree of caution, the JTA is not making any projections about costs or ridership on the new system.
Considering the past experience that is wise. But it also makes it impossible for elected officials to make reasonable assumptions about costs and benefits.
At this point, the JTA mass transit expansion plan must be considered a dream.
But mass transit dreams have a way of turning into taxpayers’ nightmares. Think California high-speed rail.
Jacksonville should not let its reach exceed its grasp.