FutureStructure

Jacksonville, Fla., Considers Replacing Skyway Rail System with Driverless Vehicles

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority recommends the change, though it is uncertain of the cost or the time frame to move forward on the high-tech vehicles.

by Sebastian Kitchen, The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville / December 9, 2016
If the transportation authority has its way, this Skyway would be replaced with autonomous vehicles. Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) -- The Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) staff on Thursday recommended replacing the Skyway rail system with driverless vehicles that would travel the current Skyway route and an added corridor between Riverside and the downtown sports complex.

The agency’s executive staff is uncertain of the cost or the time frame to move forward on the high-tech vehicles and creating the route that would begin near EverBank Field on one end and Riverside on the other. Other stops could include the site of the Riverside Arts Market, Five Points, Brooklyn, old city hall and the Shipyards, which is under consideration for development near the sports complex.

The JTA staff recommended the proposal to the agency’s board at its Thursday afternoon meeting.

“We call it Skyway, but it will be vastly different than it is today,” JTA CEO Nathaniel Ford told the JTA board. He said the agency is considering emerging technologies hoping the system will be around for 40 or 50 years.

Ford recommended the board formally approve moving forward with autonomous vehicles at its January meeting, a move that would give the staff direction to further develop costs, engineering and options.

The proposed system would combine elevated tracks, including those now used for the Skyway, and travel on the ground level.

“What we really, really like about the autonomous vehicle technology is it is truly flexible,” said Brad Thoburn, JTA vice president of planning, development and innovation.

The new vehicles would likely cost less but have a shorter life expectancy, Thoburn said. He said that could be a positive since the technology is quickly advancing and evolving, and JTA would not be locked in for as long.

The new vehicles are much lighter, would likely be battery-powered and the infrastructure would be less intrusive, Thoburn said. However, the new vehicles would likely be slower, he said.

Thoburn and Ford have said they must determine when the technology is right to move forward, particularly with some current technological and legislative impediments. They also want to access every potential funding source and ensure the project is federal-aid eligible.

He said the agency must keep the current Skyway system and vehicles running until JTA begins the conversion. Overhauling the system, Thoburn said, likely would require it to be shut down for about 18 months.

While transforming the Skyway could take years, Thoburn said JTA could break out and expedite certain sections such as one going into Brooklyn along Riverside Avenue.

Ford said the staff looked at systems around the world, particularly downtown people movers. He said the proposal is a culmination of work that began a year ago when the board indicated it wanted JTA to keep, modernize and expand the Skyway, and created an advisory committee.

“It is beyond conceptual. It is rapidly developing,” Thoburn said of autonomous vehicles.

JTA unveiled Skyway 27 years ago, a high-tech driverless system ahead of its time, but the system never lived up to expectations. The 2.5-mile system was expensive and was never expanded to reach as many areas as hoped. JTA officials agreed expanding the current system was cost prohibitive with the age of the vehicles and would not take advantage of new technology. Thoburn said the current system limits opportunities for expansion.

While the elevated concrete structure over portions of downtown streets and the St. Johns River is sound, the vehicles are obsolete and expensive to repair.

Updating the system would create the need to purchase not only the high-tech vehicles, but also change the current infrastructure. The current Skyway has a concrete guide beam that will have to be removed to allow the new vehicles to travel the path.

With the new routes on the ground level, there will also be the need to separate them from pedestrians and traffic for safety and so those do not interrupt movement of the shuttles. Thoburn envisions dedicated lanes when the vehicles operate at street level.

He said JTA wants more people to move downtown and this would allow for people to move around downtown. Thoburn said the current Skyway does not really allow people to get around downtown.

“It’s really important for the development of downtown,” Thoburn said.

He said, echoing an official with the Jacksonville Sports Council, that “it’s about connecting the Jacksonville experience.” Thoburn pointed out downtown Jacksonville and adjacent neighborhoods are spread out. JTA has not determined the exact stops or route.

After incorporating the new technology and focusing on creating a route into Riverside and the sports complex, Thoburn said JTA hopes to expand into other areas in future phases and possibly create a circulator into San Marco and the proposed development The District that could cross the river from the Southbank and back into the Shipyards and sports complex.

The proposed Five Points to sports complex route and the addition of a route into The District would help develop downtown, Thoburn said.

Board members were responsive to the presentation.

Board member Ari Jolly said the presentation was exciting and “quite progressive.” She said she was also excited about a proposed river crossing with a transit and pedestrian bridge creating a “true loop” connecting people to future housing areas.

While the new system would incorporate driverless shuttles, Thoburn said, the staff does not want to recommend a specific vehicle to the board yet. He said companies are making strides with the technology.

With the elevated track already in place in Jacksonville, Thoburn said, the city is poised to “ride the wave of autonomous vehicle technology.” He said the situation could open JTA up for funding and partnership opportunities, with the federal and state governments and public-private possibilities. Thoburn said the goal is to develop the “ultimate urban circulator.”

Thoburn said the system operates better, more efficiently, at an elevated level because it is not at the mercy of traffic.

“The reliability cannot be beat,” he said.

Sebastian Kitchen: (904) 359-4161

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©2016 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

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