JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Action News Jax Investigates uncovered major declines in Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s (JTA) service it provides and promises it has yet to deliver based on the gas tax.
Investigator Emily Turner has been digging into the agency and its CEO, Nat Ford, for months, exposing massive spending on executive travel, concerns with lobbying, and significant absences at the office.
Now, a report by the Florida Transportation Commission shows that’s happening while transit services falter and the city’s own gas tax dashboard shows little to no progress. While JTA has several jobs, like building roads and infrastructure and running a ferry and a skyway service, the bulk of its budget goes to bus service, a service tens of thousands of people rely on every day.
The Florida Transportation Commission Transit Authority Report
We talked to industry expert, Dr. Ruth Steiner about that bus service and its annual report to the Florida Transportation Commission, or FTC. She is a professor and director at the Center for Health and The Built Environment at University of Florida and said JTA’s own numbers show it’s falling short.
Turner asked her, “When you have a system that delivers this kind of service are they (JTA) letting that group of people down?”
Steiner’s answer was a resounding, “Absolutely! This is a transit agency that’s facing challenges that’s potentially in, in sort of, in this, in what is called ... the downward spiral.”
INVESTIGATES: How much time is JTA’s CEO spending in the office?
The Jacksonville Transportation Authority reports its operational metrics to the FTC every year. CEO Nat Ford was out of town, again, for this presentation, but sent Executive Vice President Cleveland Ferguson in his place. In the meeting, Ferguson admitted, “We are down in some of our on-time performance … we are down in terms of service reliability and so forth.”
For a bus system that gets an operations budget of almost $138 million taxpayer dollars a year, and more than $16 million of that from our local option gas tax, Steiner said the metrics paint a very clear picture of a bus system in the red in almost every way measurable. When asked how she would grade JTA’s metrics, she said, “It’s probably an E or an F.”
Here’s why: In the last three years, JTA’s bus operating expenses jumped by almost $7 million while doing less work.
According to the FTC’s draft report:
-the system moves fewer people: -1,785,591 annual passenger trips
-covers fewer miles showing: -13,607,275 annual passenger miles and -228,362 total revenue miles
-operates three fewer vehicles for fewer hours: -6,957 total revenue hours
-and runs less frequently: +17.3 minutes, average headway than it did just three years ago
The FTC report also covers Orlando’s bus system, Lynx. While transportation experts say it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, it’s pretty close. Lynx’s operating expenses are up, but only $2,116,856 annual operating expense while most everything else held steady or, unlike JTA, just slightly dipped.
When it comes to her first impression of JTA’s report card, Dr. Steiner said, “It’s not a good impression. Looks like the system is not, is continuing to decline in its performance.”
Local Option Gas Tax
That “decline in performance” doesn’t end there. The local option gas tax Jacksonville voters approved in 2021 came with promises of more jobs and new roads and, thankfully, an accountability page.
We checked that page. Of the more than $18 million received so far, only about $1.5 million of that has been spent, creating a whopping eight of the 1,541 jobs it promised and zero of 153 roadways.
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Nat Ford’s Report Card
While JTA has less than stellar reviews when it comes to services and delivering on gas tax promises, Nat Ford’s report card is stellar. JTA’s “independent” board gave the CEO a four-out-of-four “exceeds expectations” rating on his annual evaluation. That evaluation is directly tied to his almost $90,000 bonus, which last year he received in full.
Current Board Chair, Debbie Buckland, said, “Mr. Ford’s performance for fiscal year ending in 9/30/2022 exceeds expectations. Leading an organization as complex as JTA requires not just exemplary executive leadership skills but focus and attention to many minute details.”
The JTA board is made up of appointees from the city and from the governor. Turner reached out to both of those elected officials and will have that story in coming days.