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First Coast

JTA Board Chair Embraces Autonomous Vehicles To Replace Skyway

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North Florida TPO
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This rendering shows Bay Street filled with autonomous vehicles that JTA is planning to deploy as part of its U2C program to replace the existing Skyway system.

A major debate is underway about how to fund, grow and expand Jacksonville’s urban core transit system.

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Credit JTA
The Ollie 2.0 is one of several autonomous vehicles JTA has been testing to replace Jacksonville's existing monorail system.

Jacksonville Transportation Chair Ari Jolly wants to make it clear that what people currently think of as the Skyway isn’t what will be expanded.

“For five years, we have looked at how to rehabilitate the Skyway and I really like to use the word rehabilitate, because we're not talking about - and I think that's really important for people to understand - we're not talking about perpetuating the Skyway as we currently know it. There will be no more rail, there will be no more of that middle, the center line, you know, that you have to have for these rail cars to hold on to. It's to be rehabilitated. It's to turn it basically into a road,” Jolly said Thursday morning when she called into First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross.

At issue is whether to devote a large chunk of a proposed 6-cent gas tax to replacing the existing monorail system with new autonomous electric vehicles that would ride on the Skyway’s elevated sections as well as at street level.

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Credit VIA JACKSONVILLE DAILY RECORD
A Skyway train is pictured departing the JTA's Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center.

The current 2.5 mile monorail system has received a lot of criticism over the years for not reaching into enough places to make it useful, with Jolly saying she understands people’s skepticism of embracing the idea of spending more money to replace the current system.

“I hear that all the time. And quite frankly, before I joined the board, I would have probably had the same perception,” Jolly said.

The new system, which is currently being called the Ultimate Urban Circulator, or U2C, comes with an estimated price tag of almost $379 million, according to a UNF economic impact study provided to WJCT News by Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry’s office. Additionally, JTA was awarded a $12.5 million federal grant for the project and has been testing autonomous vehicles for several years.

Advocates of the U2C also point out there’s no cheap way to just shut down the existing monorail system.

If JTA were to abandon the Skyway and tear down the existing infrastructure it would come with a heavy price tag. WJCT News partner The Florida Times-Union estimated several years ago it would probably cost tens of millions of dollars, and said the JTA estimates it would have to pay about $90 million back to the federal government if it did. That’s because the original monorail system was built with federal money.

David Bauerlein is a reporter with the Times-Union. He discussed the existing Skyway system’s ridership over the past few years on First Coast Connect, which he says peaked in 2015 with 1.5 million riders.

“It has been going down since then, and it was about 800,000 in 2019, which was of course last year before the pandemic, so it's kind of been on a downward slide as opposed to growing in recent years.”

The downward ridership trend is despite the Skyway being free to passengers for the past several years.

A key difference between the two systems is that the U2C’s autonomous zero-emission vehicles would also run at street level into Riverside, Springfield, the sports complex and San Marco, expanding the overall people mover system to just over ten miles.

Jolly also points out the U2C represents where the future of transportation is headed. “Everything points to the fact that the concept of autonomous vehicles is here to come and it's going to replace vehicles as we know it.”

The entire interviews with Jolly and Bauerlein can be heard on Thursday’s First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross, which encores at 8 p.m. on WJCT News 89.9.

Bill Bortzfield can be reached at bbortzfield@wjct.org, 904-358-6349 or on Twitter at @BortzInJax.