JTA NEEDS TO REMEMBER THE PAST

Nathaniel Ford has been the CEO of the 
 Jacksonville Transportation Authority
 (JTA) for less than two years, yet he and his staff are already developing a long-term flexible people-mover system to cover Jacksonville’s 840 square miles. They want it to tie in with other nearby county public transportation systems.

“Over two decades,” Ford says, “we will employ best-in-class solutions to position the JTA as a regional leader in multimodal transportation, support our mission to improve the quality of life for First Coast citizens and position Northeast Florida for a robust future.”

Ford’s only problem is how to use the fixed-location, manipulated, costly, riderless (when there is a fee) Automated Skyway Express (ASE). It was constructed in the 1980s and 1990s, a long time before Ford and his staff began their careers with JTA. In 1984, there were similar plans to expand the JTA’s bus service, so 17 more new buses were ordered. Then it was determined that the cost of the ASE starter line had gone through the roof, from $22 million to almost $36 million, so the bus order was canceled, and that money was directed instead to the ASE.

Ford promises that will not happen again: “I want to assure the citizens of our city that the plans we have developed to provide a superior flexible bus, trolley and shuttle system is our No. 1 priority. There is no greater service the JTA can render than to provide quality service where people reside, work, be taken to entertainment centers and shopping locations. That service by the JTA is long overdue.”

As Ford and his colleagues consider the JTA’s future, they should first look to the past, to get a deeper understanding of the powerful vested interests that could well get in the way — as they did years ago, with the ASE — of a mass-transit plan that actually works for all the city’s residents.

There are few individuals today who are aware of the ASE bilking scandal that took Jacksonville, the state of Florida and the federal government to the cleaners. In 1984, the JTA said the total cost of the 
2.5-mile ASE, when completed, would be $76 to $78 million. In reality, the final cost was $250 million, or $100 million a mile.

Starting in 1978, there were at least 
12 people-mover mass transit proposals, each with a different route that would best serve the public’s transportation needs. None mentioned the Convention Center site for the starter line. As recently as September 1982, the selected route was “a 2.1-mile system that crosses the St. Johns River via the Acosta Bridge with a north station at Florida Junior College’s downtown campus, proceeding south through the central business district and ending at St. Johns Place,” according to a contemporaneous Jacksonville Journal article.

Then suddenly, in late 1982, the Convention Center became front and center, though no one lives anywhere near it. Powerful interests in the West Bay area had quietly taken control of the route decision.

The JTA said that when the ASE 
.07-mile starter line opened to riders, the daily ridership, with no connections or extensions, would be 10,165. That proved to be a 90 percent error.

From 1990 to 1994, the U.S. Department of Transportation, in its reports to Congress, was highly critical of the ASE, and recommended that it receive no federal funds. Repeatedly, Ralph Stanley, administrator of the Federal Urban Mass Transit System (UMTA), described the ASE as a “political pork barrel for vested interests that violated UMTA’s guidelines.” Congress overruled the Transportation Department and approved the funding anyway.

In 1991, because of the insignificant ridership, there was talk of shutting down the starter line. JTA officials said that in order to take that action, it would have to repay UMTA $47 to $67 million. However, in a letter dated December 1991, Roland T. Mross, then-deputy administrator of UMTA, says just the opposite: “In reply letter to you in Sept. 1991, and again in Nov. 1991, the point was made that the 
JTA would NOT be obligated to the refunding of federal funding that had been expended for the starter line if the JTA chose not to proceed with the northern extension to the starter line. I repeat there will be no reason whatsoever.”

It appears that the JTA’s current executive staff is unaware about Mross’ unequivocal statement. Shutting the ASE down with just the starter line having been built would have saved the feds, the state and JTA $200 million; the JTA’s share of that, more than $20 million, could have gone toward buses, trolleys and other means of mass transit.

It also appears that, back then, the 
JTA lied to justify completing the entire 2.5-mile system.

Is it any wonder, then, that earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation rejected for a second time the city’s request for $15 million to extend the Skyway? For years, the city of Jacksonville made UMTA officials look 
like fools.

Each section of the ASE required a public hearing, as mandated by the Department of Transportation. On Sept. 20, 1990, I attended the hearing held at JTA headquarters. Its purpose was to discuss the extension north on Hogan Street. Not a single JTA board member attended. Nor did Executive Director Miles Francis. I attended a second meeting in 1991. Once again, neither any JTA board member nor Francis showed up.

Congressional representative Bill Lehman from Dade County, as it was then called, served as chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee from 1982 to 1992. In that capacity, he obtained millions of dollars for the ASE. Arnold Tritt, former JTA administrator, described Lehman as the ASE’s “patron saint.” Lehman was followed by Rep. Bob Carr. A campaign contribution dinner was held for Carr in Jacksonville. The news media indicated that he received about $10,000. He later said he had reservations about the ASE. Questions were raised as to whether these gifts were an attempt at bribery.

In 1993, the 600,000-member Citizens Against Government Waste gave their ”PIG” award to the ASE for wasting federal dollars. That same year, ABC World News heard about the ASE and sent a news team to Jacksonville, noting all the empty cars over a period of an hour. In a national broadcast, ABC described the ASE as a rip-off. ABC sent another news team to Jacksonville in 1994, to see if there had been any change. There had been none. ABC World News again blasted the project as a rip-off.

Some members of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, having a vested interest in the ASE project, helped to develop a scheme to sell it to the mayor, the City Council and members of Congress. JTA and the city lost control only when changes in Congress led to the loss of powerful friends who’d overruled the DOT.

I’ve lived in Jacksonville for more than 60 years, and I would caution Ford and his staff that there are and have always been special interests who have dominated city government. Names change, but the control remains, and the consequence is projects that cost the city and its citizens hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of waste and corruption. Recent such projects include not just the ASE, but also the Shipyards, the ugly, unbelievably costly new Duval County Courthouse, the renovation of the Gator Bowl into an NFL stadium, the Convention Center, and the original Southbank Riverwalk and the manipulated bidding process for the replacement of the Southbank Riverwalk.

To be successful, Ford must resist their interference, for it will no doubt come.

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