Last week, stories about two important pieces of Downtown’s transportation infrastructure illustrated the difference between forward-thinking leadership and a bureaucracy that sometimes doesn’t know to get out of its own way.
The Jacksonville Transportation Authority used the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Skyway Express to announce that the often-criticized overhead rail system may be expanded.
There has probably been no other public project over the past century that has been the brunt of so many jokes, not even the Duval County Courthouse. But attitudes have been changing over the past couple of years, including after April’s One Spark festival that had more than 100,000 rides.
Instead of looking at the Skyway as an encumbrance, JTA CEO Nathaniel Ford has looked at ways to broaden its appeal and market its use.
Ford has commissioned a study of a potential Skyway expansion. He said a natural possibility is to extend it to the Brooklyn neighborhood, where 220 Riverside and Unity Plaza developments are underway. He expects a schedule that will make that happen by the end of the summer.
Other expansion possibilities could include EverBank Field, Metropolitan Park and UF Health in Springfield.
Since he began at the JTA in December 2012, Ford has impressed a lot of people. He’s been improving basic services, altering and improving bus routes and adding new equipment.
Ford also has been innovative. Wrapping the Skyway cars with marketing messages is an exciting branding idea that brings creativity to Downtown and possibly a new revenue source for the authority.
Now that the 6-cent gas tax has been extended, Ford will be able to count on it to maintain services, build new roads and operate the St. Johns River Ferry in Mayport.
I would be willing to bet one of the reasons the City Council passed the gas-tax extension is because of the well-deserved confidence they have in Ford’s leadership.
Delay causes break in water taxi service
The troubling news came when it was learned the Downtown water taxi service was being discontinued last Friday.
The company that had been operating the water taxis for the last eight months decided to shut down the service since its contract with the city expired in January and its bid for a longer-term deal had been declined.
Upon hearing the news, I was flooded with memories and concern.
As a member of the Jacksonville Waterways Commission during three mayoral administrations, I worked with council members Jim Tullis and Lynette Self to develop a Request for Proposal for a safe and reliable water taxi service that would enhance the Downtown experience.
Before that, four different companies were jockeying for position at the Jacksonville Landing docks to pick up as many passengers as possible, transporting them across the river to various points.
In many cases, passengers were left to walk across the Main Street Bridge to return to their cars.
A schedule and signage were developed to ensure riders knew the route times and the hours of operation.
More importantly, the service was to be available to riders every day, even in inclement weather.
The trade-off for the vendor using fuel and labor was the expectation that large events would make up the difference.
That was another reason the vendor would be required to maintain a fleet of vessels that could provide enough seats to accommodate a busy Florida-Georgia game weekend or a quiet Thursday night.
If a big event required more seats or rapid moving of fans, the vendor was responsible for securing the extra vessels and paying for them from his receipts.
The point was to create a positive experience for our residents and guests in Coast Guard-approved vessels.
For more than 15 years, Greg Samuel, the owner of S.S. Marine Ventures, provided that service efficiently and effectively.
Greg and his wife, Donna, worked with the Super Bowl Host Committee, he survived the downturn of the economy and while running a boat in cold, rainy weather with no one on board, he would simply say that it was part of the agreement.
The service has become an important piece of the fabric of Downtown.
Despite the fact that the water taxi contract was ending, the city, for whatever reason, did not get an RFP out until mid-January, just before the expiration of the old contract.
It appears, leading up the procurement process, a couple of key city departments were unable to get around to reviewing and approving the RFP any sooner.
One issue was money. Samuel, who paid the city $300 monthly, would be the first to tell he wanted that changed.
After 20 years in the business, he knew what it took to keep the boats in tip-top shape, the cost of marketing, along with the increased fuel and labor costs.
Add to that, the Southbank Riverwalk is under construction making it an unattractive destination for riders for the near future.
HarborCare, of Baltimore, has been operating for the last eight months with no contract. To continue, the company asked for $25,000 month to operate the service.
They had the potential to elevate the service by offering excursions, group trips from hotels, as well as sponsored ride nights during special events like One Spark.
For city officials, the solution was to purchase two vessels for $330,000 to temporarily solve the problem and not have a gap in the service, including Saturday when 52,000 fans were at EverBank Field for a U.S. Men’s National soccer team match against Nigeria.
Only problem: Any vessel has to be Coast Guard approved. It now appears that should happen before Friday.
When Samuel decided he wanted to retire, his interest was to find a vendor qualified to take over. Several people with various levels of experience shared with him their interest.
When the RFP is put out for response, I can only imagine the City is hoping the winner will purchase the two boats. If not, city officials could be faced with trying to dispose of a couple of boats in a soft water-taxi market.
The water-taxi service is important to Downtown hotels and other businesses, one of the reasons cited by Brown’s Chief Administrative Officer Karen Bowling for buying the two boats.
During special events like this weekend’s Florida Country Superfest, the upcoming Fourth of July holiday and Jacksonville Jaguars games, the water taxis are not only an enjoyable ride, but are a valuable part of the Downtown transportation network.
Having any interruption, even for a weekend and much less a week, is a bump in the road that Downtown did not need and could have been avoided.
Don’t believe everything you read on Twitter
For those of you who don’t know, there’s a parody account on Twitter that purports to be me. It’s not.
Parody accounts are not uncommon. In fact, one that is well-known around Jacksonville is @JaxMayorBrown, an account I assume was created to bedevil Mayor Alvin Brown.
I first learned about the
@DowntownJimB account when a few friends winked at me and said they had been reading what I had written.
But, the tweets are written by an anonymous person who is seemingly making an effort to be clever.
As the publisher of a daily newspaper, you can pretty well bet if I have anything to say, it will be written right here. It sure won’t appear on a fake Twitter account.
Or, if you want to ask me about something, you can always call me.