February 24, 2021
Off the rails

JTA's plan calls for building ramps from elevated rail tracks to lanes dedicated to autonomous vehicles.

Transportation

Off the rails

Jacksonville's elevated rail system may make way for an autonomous vehicle system

Mark Basch | 4/27/2018

Almost from the day it began in 1989, Jacksonville’s Automated Skyway Express has been a disappointment. The elevated rail system through downtown Jacksonville was projected to carry about 100,000 riders a day, but ridership was only about 1 million in the entire last fiscal year, or about 2,735 a day, even with the service offered free.

Talk now is centered on thinking about better uses for the system.

“We were scratching our heads trying to figure out how to handle its obsolescence,” says Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO Nat Ford.

The solution: Use the tracks of the ASE as a starting point for a network of autonomous vehicles ferrying passengers through the downtown area. JTA intends to build ramps from the elevated tracks that connect with dedicated lanes on city streets.

“It’s helping us out with an antiquated infrastructure that really needs to be repurposed,” says Ford.

JTA is already testing cars for its autonomous system, which it calls the Ultimate Urban Circulator, with a test track near the city’s sports complex.

Ford says a major reason for the underuse of the ASE is the 2.5-mile rail network isn’t long enough and doesn’t take people where they want to go. With the autonomous vehicles running on city streets, the network can be extended to cover a much wider path on both sides of the St. Johns River running through downtown.

The JTA is not ready to discuss the cost of the project or specific financing plans. Ford says the agency is looking at potential public-private partnerships, as well as funding from real estate development on JTA-owned property. He’s hoping the technology and funding will come together to make the system a reality.

“We need to pull the trigger at the right moment.”

 

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