Nate Monroe: The Skyway, Jacksonville's most visible failure, threatens to overshadow sweeping spending plan

Nate Monroe
Florida Times-Union

COMMENTARY | The Skyway, downtown’s screeching monorail imposter, is Jacksonville’s troubled soul taken physical form, as if some higher power, to teach us a lesson, imbued all this city’s neuroses into a single, tangible, unsolvable thing: The Skyway is too expensive to maintain; it’s too expensive to tear down; it’s too expensive to modernize. The mercurial citizenry hates all the options. The path of least resistance is and has always been to simply look the other way. And this, not by coincidence, is the Jacksonville Way.

We took the money from the feds for the Skyway in the 1980s because we were concerned it would just go to some other city if we didn’t, and so why not us? Why not us is because we did exactly what we did with it, which is build it and then nothing. Nothing for years. Nothing for decades. The “newest” segment opened in 2000. And now it’s nowhere, serving no one, hardly able to give rides away free of charge  —  for, in a word, nothing. Its initial champion, former Mayor Jake Godbold, came to regret it. “But if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have pushed for it,” he said years ago.

The awkward mini-trains are limited to a 2.5-mile track centered in downtown, which is to say the trains don’t really go anywhere. Because even though downtown Jacksonville is definitely somewhere in the physical sense, it’s not really somewhere in the sense that anyone really finds acceptable. There’s just not much to do except go to the courthouse or maybe the 630-CITY offices, god help you, and since the overwhelming odds are you don’t live in downtown — because about one half of one percent in this city of roughly 1 million residents actually do — the Skyway didn’t bring you there and can’t take you home. The Skyway is just there, almost inert, like a pet snake in a terrarium, this odd thing that doesn’t quite belong trapped in the place pretending to be someplace else — to be any place at all.

Detail of the carved stonework on the church tower of First Baptist Church's Hobson Auditorium with the Skyway tracks below it.

Everyone knows if the Skyway can ever be made to work, it must at least go somewhere, which means it has to go somewhere outside of downtown because downtown is nowhere. Maybe that will change one day. Hopefully it will; there are some good reasons to think it can. But then again maybe it won’t.

The Skyway is yesterday’s vision of what the Jacksonville of tomorrow would be. And there it is, that skeletal, antiquated thing, the aging, creaking optimism of yesterday colliding in real-time with the hollowed-out disappointment of today, day after day.

Want a ride?

The head says demolish it. The heart protests, sees its possibilities, its unfulfilled potential. 

Unfulfilled potential: The Skyway’s curse — and Jacksonville’s. 

Now, the Skyway threatens to overshadow a major City Hall proposal to inject almost $1 billion in new spending into road and transit projects across the city, something close to what one might reasonably call actual progress -- 4/25/12 -- The Skyway enters the Hemming Plaza station. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority has been operating the Skyway system at no cost for the riders for the last three months.  That will end on May 1, 2012.  On April 25, 2012 riders were asked about their ridership and the effect having to pay again might have on that.   (The Florida Times-Union, Bob Mack)

The soft underbelly

It’s an unlikely plan hatched by Jacksonville’s Republican mayor, Lenny Curry, to double the gas tax, use the money to speed up backlogged road projects, and, hopefully, free up money in the budget so the city has more flexibility and capacity to pay for other priorities — like extending city water and sewer service to historically neglected neighborhoods. Curry tends to view the proposal, which would include immediately bonding out $300 million to begin all the proposed road projects within the next five years, primarily as a jobs plan.

It would be an initial down payment on the city’s long list of needs, which have accumulated in large part because the city is simply underfunded — the near-consensus view of multiple studies done over the past decade and among civic leaders of both parties. Curry is not the city’s first Republican mayor to propose a tax or fee increase in his second term, freed of the constraints of a re-election campaign, but that doesn’t mean his support for it was inevitable. In this polarized age, his was a remarkable turnabout.

On paper it's a plan with broad benefits that should attract broad support, but the Skyway is unquestionably its soft underbelly.

The city would split the revenue generated by the extra 6 cents down the middle with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, which does plan to pay for a list of uncontroversial and needed transit improvements, like hundreds of renovated bus stops. 

But JTA also wants $379 million to “modernize” the Skyway, the single largest line item in the entire plan and an astonishing sum that has, fair or not, turned people who would otherwise support the gas tax proposal into staunch opponents. The Skyway engenders deep feelings, and typically not positive ones.

The Skyway component has already cost the mayor the support of City Council member LeAnna Cumber, normally an ally. "To spend more money on a system that has never worked since (opening) and was a pilot program is astonishing to me, to be honest with you," she recently told my colleague David Bauerlein. Other conservative members of the council simply won't support any tax increase, no matter the purpose, leaving Curry with a bit of an odd coalition of more moderate Republicans, Democrats and oft-opponents to carry the bill forward — and all while the 2023 mayoral race, for which two council members have already announced campaigns, looms increasingly large.

How fragile is that coalition? Is there enough angst about the Skyway to sink the gas tax proposal? Probably not. But it's also the sort of criticism that can, like an offshore wave approaching land, rapidly grow — invisible until it's too late. 

Caviar or fish?

Nathaniel Ford inherited the Skyway's misfortune when the JTA board of directors named him CEO in 2012. He has since shown himself to be an adept navigator of government bureaucracy and the transit industry — he's a well-known figure with a good reputation — and he's demonstrated he knows how to keep the agency mostly out of trouble while making good on a few long-term promises, like construction of the impressive new Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center on the west end of downtown.

He has hammered out a vision for the Skyway over the past several years that is ... interesting, if nothing else: Essentially eliminating the monorail features of the system, replacing them with rubber-wheeled autonomous vehicles (no driver!) that can drive on the elevated portions, and extending the system on ground-level routes deeper into San Marco, into Riverside, north to UF Health and east to TIAA Bank Field.

Ford has not yet sold the public on this vision, in part because it's not limited to a problem of salesmanship — though a salesmanship problem exists — but also because there are credible critiques of it: Critiques of the technology, of the amount of money he's seeking, of why it should rise so quickly to the top of the priority list, of whether it exacerbates the city's historical failure to invest in areas with the highest need.

"Are we being asked to pay for caviar when a fish sandwich will be just as effective from a transit perspective?" Ennis Davis, a land-use and transportation planner, and co-founder of The Jaxson, told me. "If so, perhaps there are ways to trim the fat and still produce something that people will (actually) use."

"Better balancing the percentage of gas tax money going to the Skyway, with other transportation needs in the community, is worth pursuit and discussion by council prior to finalizing the draft project list," he said.

Autonomous technology is certainly fashionable in transportation circles these days. Davis recently told me it's the only thing people seem to want to talk about at industry conventions. But that does not mean it's a feature that will resonate with the public — to the extent a rider might care at all, it's probably just as often (if not far more often) a preference there is a driver — nor does it mean it's truly a viable technology for a realistic, practical system like the expanded Skyway Ford envisions. Skyway cars reflected in the building at the Riverplace station. The Skyway people mover, in downtown Jacksonville, Florida, is under fire again those in city hall and the city council wanting to shut it down, as ridership is limited. And JTA chairman says it will need to live out it's life, which is another 25 years, to 2036. If they close it down before the life span, some say the city would have to pay back millions to the Federal government. In Jacksonville, Florida, on Thursday, August 25, 2011.   (The Florida Times-Union, Don Burk)

Reduce the ask

Ford has pointed to a Skyway advisory group he convened in 2015 that, after six public meetings and two public forums, concluded the system is worthy of modernizing and expanding. And it's true, there are apparent barriers to tearing down the system, starting with its cost: JTA estimates it would take about $45 million to demolish, and another $45 million to pay back the federal government for terminating a system it helped put in place.

But that six-year-old advisory group did not consider using a new gas tax to pay for modernizing the system. That part of the sales job simply hasn't happened, no group has previously considered it. And there has long been an assumption JTA would have significant federal help with this effort, but $379 million doesn't look like matching money; it looks like, "we're going it alone" money.

Why does it have to be so much? And why this very moment? The Biden administration is crafting a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure plan, the exact sort of thing that could help Jacksonville pay to modernize the Skyway, if it is truly a worthy investment.

Could JTA not live with, say, a third of the initial ask, or even a fourth? That would still be substantial seed money, nearly $100 million, that it could take to the federal government (or a private partner) to demonstrate it has serious buy-in and matching money to leverage.

If JTA can't convince the feds to chip in with that much money already in the bag — for a system the federal government was instrumental in bringing to Jacksonville, and for which it will apparently require the city to pay it back if the Skyway is demolished — then perhaps it is time to question whether the Skyway should simply be taken down.

A boutique system

There are other ways to generate revenue aside from a gas tax increase, but some of them, like a franchise fee hike on utility bills, are even more regressive (i.e. they disproportionately impact low-income payers). Others, like a property tax increase, are politically off the table (and opponents would still clamor about landlords passing on the costs of higher property tax bills to lower-income renters). There is no painless way to raise revenue.

Yet the Skyway plan does exacerbate some of the more compelling critiques of the gas tax. The tax's primary virtue — that everyone who drives pays in — becomes a weakness if the benefits accrue disproportionately to already prosperous areas.

The proposed Skyway extension would reach further into Riverside, San Marco and out east toward the football stadium, all logical enough destinations but also ones that cater to wealthier residents. There is also a route that would run to UF Health, which is a genuinely good idea.

So why not include a route to, say, J.P. Small Memorial Stadium? It's the home field for Edward Waters College. It's a genuine historical treasure, with a budding museum to boot. And it's in Durkeeville, a cherished but neglected neighborhood that would benefit immensely from a service like an expanded, modernized Skyway. It's near UF Health, where JTA already plans a stop, and it's no further from downtown than Five Points but just as deserving. There are other potential stops that share these qualities.

The Skyway vision simply needs something more to elevate it beyond what, on paper, looks like a boutique service that mostly would cater to bar-hopping 20-somethings. It's hard to defend spending $379 million on it, particularly when the entire gas tax plan is being sold, in part, as a way to spread benefits across the entire city.

Something or nothing

Dust from an implosion of a hotel in 1998 obscures the former Independent Life building as a lone observer stands on the elevated Skyway track on Bay Street.

Curry's gas tax plan has a lot of merit — more merit than not, in fact. It has the potential to do tremendous good, and to start catching the city up on its long list of needs. Jacksonville can't afford to let needed revenue slip through its fingers because of a parochial fight over the damned Skyway.

None of this should be news to JTA. These are not deal-breaking critiques. 

JTA can almost certainly get some money for the Skyway and millions more for work everyone agrees needs to happen with a willingness to be flexible and to compromise. Or maybe the votes are there regardless and the $379 million Skyway plan will happen hell or high water, valid criticism or not.

If Ford happens to be wrong, though, if the votes start to slip, if the letters and the public speakers start to turn, a closed mind risks getting nothing, accomplishing nothing, benefitting no one — Jacksonville's terrible but familiar status quo.

Nate Monroe's City column appears every Thursday and Sunday.