Jacksonville Transportation Authority Skyway modernization: Expanded routes, autonomous vehicles


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Skyway may be on its way to becoming the "Ultimate Urban Circulator."

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority has unveiled their recommendation that followed more than a year of investigating how to modernize the Skyway. Not only do they want to see the system move to autonomous vehicles, but expand to new areas as well.

“We want to create a bold vision, I think the city deserves it,” said JTA CEO Nathaniel Ford.

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JTA weighed several options, including only upgrading the vehicles, also upgrading the infrastructure, or switching to the autonomous vehicles.

Those who have been involved in the study recommended the latter for a number of reasons, including that the shorter life span of the vehicles allows for more flexibility with emerging technology, the vehicles can scale up for large capacity events, and they can move quickly and also operate at the ground level.

“This is kind of the wave of technology that’s going to consume transportation in the coming decades,” said JTA Vice President of Planning, Development, and Innovation Brad Thoburn.

Expanding areas that the Skyway serves is also seen as critical for the future of the system and to meet the needs of the City, because Ford said the current system doesn’t give enough connectivity to emerging areas.

“We have to think about the future. We’re talking about building infrastructure that needs to be in place for the citizens who are coming to our city thirty, forty, fifty years from now,” he said.

JTA wants to make sure people can live, work, and access entertainment in those areas without needing to wonder about transportation.

The first recommended step is to extend service in to the Brooklyn area, which would ultimately be a stepping stone for Riverside and Five Points. The JTA also wants new service to the Sports Complex, in more of the Southbank, and up to UF Health Jacksonville.

The proposal even envisions adding a new circulator/pedestrian bridge connecting the Southbank and the Sports Complex, creating a loop in the service. While that’s not on the map of the recommendation, it is something JTA said they continue to study because they learned from other systems, like the one in Miami, that a loop could be a great asset.

“As an agency, we think it’s really a great value to Downtown in creating that pedestrian and transit loop around really what is the heart of the city and region,” Thoburn said.

Existing infrastructure would be incorporated in to the new system, with modifications to accommodate the new vehicles. Some of the expansions are proposed to go down to the ground level in areas where an elevated track would be difficult to put in.

Board members immediately had questions, including how this proposal connects with other transit projects. They also wanted more insight on the cost of this type of overhaul, and they were not given a direct answer at this time. Ford said that’s largely because the technology is still emerging, so they don’t have an accurate grasp of cost, but they will work up a range so the Board can consider some of the options.

“We are not limiting ourselves with that question of cost. Let’s develop the plan, let’s examine what are our opportunities versus what are our limitations,” he said.

The proposal did say that full upgrades and an expansion like this would likely be eligible for state and federal funding, and that JTA would seek public/private partnerships as well.

There’s also no set timeline for when the work could begin or how long it would take to complete, but Ford said it’s something that can’t wait.

“The existing Skyway will be obsolete -- difficult, if not impossible to maintain in another five years,” Ford said.

And if you’re skeptical JTA can actually achieve a vision like this, Ford said you can look at the Bus Rapid Transit program they’ve been rolling out and other major projects to show JTA has a track record and is ready to deliver.

The Board will spend the coming weeks vetting this proposal, and is expected to vote on whether to move forward during their January Board meeting.