As I write this, we are about a week out from the collapse of a section of South Liberty Street on Jacksonville’s Northbank, and there’s still no timetable for repair. Those affected by the situation — specifically, the nearby residents of townhomes — have taken to social media to complain about being without power indefinitely, and about no one from the city or JEA coming forth to offer some type of restitution.
This is not an optimal situation for them, but that’s not the larger story here. The larger story is what the Liberty Street collapse says about our area’s infrastructure — both the problems with it and the problems with our municipal approach to infrastructural issues in general.
The Liberty Street collapse should be a wake-up call, a strong signal from the mountaintop that our approach to road maintenance is flawed. Beyond that, it is an indictment of our urban planning since consolidation, of our casual neglect of Downtown, and ultimately of our leadership class for being so interested in expanding outward with new roads and new subdivisions that we’ve failed when it comes to maintaining the infrastructure of the most important neighborhood in Jacksonville.
How can this be a surprise? It’s been decades in the making. Go back with me to the period after consolidation. Fifty years ago, Downtown was thriving — department stores throughout. By the time we got to the mid-1980s, the department stores had closed. The hot areas: the malls of Regency and Orange Park.
That momentum didn’t last. But the trend did. By this I mean Jacksonville has continued to build out to the hinterlands, in the process largely neglecting the urban core. Things have gotten better on this front during the current administration, but the problem facing Alvin Brown’s team is that they are having to deal with not just present-day neglect, but the neglect of the political class for decades prior.
The irony about Jacksonville and Northeast Florida is that it is such a vehicular culture, yet roads and bridges are somewhere south of optimal. There are dozens of deficient and obsolete spans in all parts of town, but especially on the Northside and Westside. It’s easy to get caught up in the nomenclature. To say a bridge is deficient or obsolete does not mean its collapse is imminent. But it does mean that attention needs to be paid to it. At some point.
John Delaney’s Better Jacksonville Plan has come and gone, and some of its promises have been fulfilled while others have been forgotten. Right now, Jacksonville has three major mayoral candidates, and they talk primarily about the pension issue and whether or not Mayor Brown has raised taxes. Insurgent candidate Bill Bishop has talked more than anyone about infrastructure. But it’s not really a sexy issue.
We need to get serious — as a city and a state both — about road and bridge maintenance and repair. We also need to figure out a funding source. Ironically, given the stereotypes, it’s the Republican Party agitating for a tax increase right now. (Witness last week’s JAX Chamber’s endorsement of Lenny Curry, predicated — according to the mayor’s campaign, anyway — on Brown’s refusal to endorse tax hikes. The Chamber denies this.)
We need to figure out a dedicated revenue source, or several revenue sources. A sales tax increase and a property tax increase both need to happen. And we may need to think about tolls again, too. (Sorry, Tommy Hazouri; I know toll removal is your legacy, but it wasn’t a good idea.)
Perhaps tolls at the St. Johns County line, to soak commuters, might help recoup the costs of suburban sprawl. If this weren’t a prison-industrial state with contractually mandated occupancy levels in our gulags, we could also consider marijuana decriminalization, regulation and taxation; seems to work in Colorado. But this is Florida, and progressive solutions that we see on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line don’t fly here. We have a 20th-century mindset. And 21st-century problems.