COME ON, RIDE THAT TRAIN

As A Dec. 10 deadline looms for The Skyway Advisory Group to present a recommendation for the future of the Skyway, a local company believes it has a solution to Jacksonville’s Skyway woes. But the advisory group isn’t even considering it.

On Nov. 9, the Skyway Advisory Group met at Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s Downtown headquarters to discuss solutions to the Skyway conundrum, which is essentially threefold: 1) The technology is out of production; 2) dismantling the system means potentially returning millions of dollars of federal grant money; and 3) ridership for the 2.5-mile, so-called “express to nowhere,” remains relatively dismal.

Bombardier Transportation, which designed the Skyway cars, no longer produces them, and four of the 10 are currently out of service. So to keep the system operational, in the not-too-distant future, JTA must either buy cars from another company or overhaul the cars it already owns. Other options include dismantling the system and replacing it with buses, streetcars or trolleys, creating an elevated walkway, or replacing the system with something similar.

JTA estimates that the “remaining useful life of federal investment is $33.5 million and $12.1 million for state.” At least some of this money, if not all, will likely have to be paid back if the city dismantles the Skyway. Of the options under consideration, only overhauling the Skyway, replacing it with streetcars or with a system are unlikely to necessitate returning federal grant dollars. (JTA acknowledges that streetcars might be a non-starter, because of extensive costs to create a river crossing.) And many believe that overhauling it merely postpones its inevitable, expensive demise.

David Richardson, president of Trident Global Management Group, believes that the proposal his company submitted to JTA solves all these problems.

Richardson proposes replacing the Skyway with the SkyWeb Express system, a personal rapid transit (PRT) system designed by Taxi 2000. This retrofit would utilize existing Skyway infrastructure for its track and replace the 53,000-pound Skyway cars with a fleet of smaller, relatively lightweight cars (approximately 1,000 pounds each) that can accommodate up to three adults.

In this system, riders go to a station, climb into the first available car in a queue, program their destination, then travel at a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour to that destination, without any intervening stops.

“It’s on demand, so it’s like Uber … it’s driverless, which means it’s like a Google car,” Richardson says. “It’s ‘The Jetsons’ for now.”

Taxi 2000 reports that in 2006, Honeywell completed a third-party verification of the system and quotes the company as writing, “After a thorough evaluation of the [c]oncept, Honeywell concludes there are no conceptual flaws in the current version of the Taxi 2000 control system.”

Honeywell also found that the time lapse between cars, or headway, can be as short as 0.5 seconds. Skyway’s headway is reportedly six minutes; the maximum passengers per hour it can carry on the six operational cars is 1,680.

Richardson’s proposal reports that SkyWeb is capable of carrying 10,800 passengers per hour if each car contains 1.5 passengers. Additionally, cars can easily be added or subtracted as ridership fluctuates throughout the day. So the system would be able to accommodate large increases in ridership that would likely result from extending the line into nearby neighborhoods, which many see as necessary to justify maintaining the system.

At the Nov. 9 meeting, group member Husein Cumber, vice president of Florida East Coast Industries, expressed concerns that any substitute system be capable of evolving with the city. “In the next 40 years, if we all do what we want to do, Downtown Jacksonville is not going to look like it does today,” he said, later adding, “You’re going to need the ability over the next 40 years to pivot whatever you’ve built.”

Because SkyWeb cars are so lightweight, support beams for the track are about the size of a utility pole, which means that expanding or dismantling a line could be accomplished expediently, with minimal disruptions to traffic and other city services. Richardson says they are also much quieter than the Skyway and, due to their small size (Taxi 2000 reports they’re about the size of a cow), less obtrusive.

Councilman Tommy Hazouri, who’s in the advisory group, believes the most viable option is adding trolleys to accommodate commuters who use the Skyway and creating a walking path, like New York City’s High Line, from the track. This option seems to have the most support of the group, which indicates their willingness to give up on the Skyway, for better or worse.

JTA has been conducting an online survey to gauge public support for each option being considered. At the Nov. 9 meeting, the authority reported that 80 percent of respondents support keeping — and extending — the Skyway or a similar system.

Accessing neighborhoods with the Skyway has long been a pipe dream because of the associated costs. Richardson’s proposal estimates that extending the Skyway one mile would cost upwards of $113.9 million. In 2005, SkyWeb Express was estimated to cost between $18 and $23 million per mile. So for every mile of Skyway, JTA could afford nearly five miles of SkyWeb.

RS&H, the facilities and infrastructure consulting company that analyzed the various options for the advisory group, did not include the SkyWeb in its analysis. Of its many services, RS&H designs and/or consults on the design of walkways, bike paths, bus systems, streetcar systems, railway systems and more. It doesn’t design or consult on PRT systems like SkyWeb. FW contacted RS&H to ask why SkyWeb wasn’t included in its analysis; a public relations representative said the company doesn’t comment on such matters and inquiries were better directed to JTA. Via email, Leigh Ann Rassler, JTA public relations manager, said the authority selected options to analyze “where there are existing systems in place” and that no matter which option is chosen, Skyway will remain operational for five years.

Rassler says, “JTA … did not include [The] SkyWeb Express in the life cycle cost analysis because the system has not been deployed in a manner that allowed meaningful cost figures for construction, operations and maintenance. JTA has always presented it as replacement option.”

Hazouri says SkyWeb is “a grand idea … [but] when I talk to them, they say basically it’s not proven.”

A similar system has been operational in Morgantown, West Virginia since 1975. They’ve been implemented in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates’ capital, at London’s Heathrow Airport, and in Seoul, South Korea.

Nevertheless, once bitten, Jacksonville may not be willing to take another chance on a PRT system like SkyWeb. 

But someone will. Richardson says his company has been in talks with other cities. “A lot of cities are considering, but they want someone to be first. I want Jacksonville to be first,” he says.

The Skyway Advisory Group will submit its final recommendation to the JTA board of directors on Dec. 10.

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october, 2021

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