Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sunday Long Read: Curing Mono

Jacksonville's long been the standing punchline of Florida, a city that tries so hard to be Miami or Tampa or even Atlanta, and instead ends up being, well, Jacksonville.  We're talking about a city that put a monorail in place thirty years ago and if you're wondering why Jacksonville isn't famous for it, well, you've discovered the problem.

But now Jacksonville is turning to automated shuttles that use the monorail track and proposed off-ramps to get people where they need to go, and if the plan works, Jacksonville might just be famous. For a good reason.

The Central Station monorail platform hangs above the streets of Jacksonville, Florida. The fareboxes, which haven’t accepted payment in almost six years, wear vinyl wrap with “SKYWAY IS FREE” stenciled in white block letters. Even at that price, the end of a recent morning rush finds only a handful of riders bothering to wait for the silver-and-blue trains that glide in every six minutes.

On a cool day in January, the wait might not be much of an impediment. But it’s too long during sweltering Florida summers, when air-conditioned monorail cars become an oasis, says Brad Thoburn, vice president of planning, development and innovation at the Jacksonville Transportation Authority. It’s part of the reason he believes the monorail, a failed relic of a future that never arrived, needs to be replaced by the next sweeping vision of urban transit: autonomous vehicles.

The Skyway was supposed to mature into a sleek system moving millions of riders each year from Jacksonville’s core to a historic district on the north side, what’s now a stadium for the city’s National Football League team to the east and beyond. But the monorail never left downtown after its 1989 debut or extended past a two-and-a-half mile track. Daily ridership hovers around 5,000, just 10 percent of initial projections.

Pulling down the elevated tracks or mothballing the system would trigger payback of tens of millions of dollars to the federal and state agencies that bankrolled most of the construction costs. Which is another reason why the JTA has pinned its hopes on driving robots.

The authority’s new five-year plan calls for off-ramps to be built at key points along the monorail route, allowing the self-driving shuttles down to reach the street in dedicated traffic lanes. That will make it more affordable for the stunted transit system to finally expand without erecting new tracks—and it would make Jacksonville one of the first cities to tie its transit fate so closely to automated vehicles.

In case the hopeful dynamic isn’t clear enough, Thoburn’s office is decorated with a version of the “Field of Dreams” movie poster that casts him as the main character, who hears a voice intoning, “If you build it, they will come.”

The automated shuttles, called EV10s, are the great hope for the future of the city's transportation.  The problem of course is that the technology isn't there yet.  But it will be soon.  And soon can't come quickly enough, as the existing monorail cars are falling apart and the city still has to get another 20 years out of their investment, or they'll owe the federal government tens of millions in penalties that the city doesn't have.

We'll see if Jacksonville can turn a failed bet into the transportation model of the future.

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