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Jax Daily Record Monday, Jun. 4, 200712:00 PM EST

More questions than answers for JTA's BRT

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by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

by Max Marbut

Staff Writer

If everything that has changed in Jacksonville in the last 25 years is any indication, the changes in store for the next quarter of a century will be even more profound.

That’s particularly true when it comes to population growth and as the years go by and the population grows, people will become more and more mobile. That means moving people around will probably be one of the biggest issues facing the community when it comes to traffic congestion.

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority made a presentation about Bus Rapid Transit at Friday morning’s meeting of the Downtown Council of the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce and it was met with more than a little skepticism from Downtown business people.

The project is planned in three stages. The first will reroute buses and trolleys Downtown and is expected to be complete by 2010. By 2025 the second phase will connect the changes Downtown to a layout expanded to Lem Turner Road on the Northside, 103rd Street on the Westside, Baymeadows Road on the Southside and east to Regency Square.

When the project is complete in 2030, the Duval County segment of the Regional Transportation System will hook up with other transit projects throughout the state, including a light rail system that is planned to connect Jacksonville with Daytona and Orlando.

By that time, JTA Director of External Affairs Mike Miller says there may also be hovercraft skimming over the St. Johns River from Palatka to the Jacksonville Zoo.

“This is a vision that has been worked on for well over 10 years,” he said. “This area is growing and it will continue to grow. We will never be able to build enough roads. By 2030, the entire county would have to be asphalt and we believe mass transit is the solution.”

The first phase of BRT will involve new bus routes Downtown that will involve consolidating bus travel on 25 Downtown streets to only a few – and they’re the ones where most of Downtown’s current resurgence in retail is planned in the next couple of years. The BRT system will also operate in designated lanes that will not be available for other vehicles during peak travel hours. The new bus stops and the designated lanes will eliminate as many as 200 on-street parking places Downtown. That number won’t be known until JTA decides which streets will be affected, but the current list of possibilities includes Bay, Forsyth and Adams streets.

At a May 24 meeting with JTA, Downtown Vision, Inc. and several Downtown stakeholders, the transit consultant hired by JTA to present the plan, Mark Niles of DMJM Harris Planning, didn’t get more than five minutes of a 20-minute presentation delivered before the questions started.

Amy Harrell, DVI’s director of business development, questioned the choice of streets that would be used for BRT.

“Forsyth, Bay, Adams, Laura and Hogan are our biggest opportunities to develop the pedestrian experience. Buses don’t fit in with having dinner at a sidewalk cafe.”

CB Richard Ellis First Vice President Oliver Barakat also questioned the selection of streets.

“Bay and Forsyth represent the greatest future potential for Downtown retail and residential development,” he said, then suggesting preserving those streets but keeping BRT close to those corridors.

Friday, Downtown Council member Mary O’Donnell asked if it really makes any sense for the first phase of BRT to take away parking Downtown and create more congestion on the streets that are beginning Downtown’s pedestrian revival.

Miller said having enhanced BRT stops on those streets could be an advantage.

“We are trying to make this a walkable city. Do we want pedestrians on State and Union or on Bay and Forsyth?”

Mark Rimmer, president of Realistic Transportation Alternatives, owns and operates parking garages Downtown and said he is concerned about the effect of losing so many short-term spaces.

“As Downtown grows, existing surface lots will disappear to make way for development. Removing 200 meters from Downtown streets could have a crippling effect because meters are critical for short-term parking that supports street-level retail.”

Rimmer added, “I always thought the master plan is to reduce traffic Downtown, create traffic-calming and enhance the pedestrian experience. This plan seems to go against that concept. And nobody’s property value goes up when buses run in front of it all day.”

Miller said Friday he wanted to make it clear that “The Downtown component of the BRT plan is all in the planning stage. Nothing is in stone.

“We know we have an education job to do because it’s something totally new. Not many people have experienced Bus Rapid Transit,” he said. “We understand there is great sensitivity about on-street parking Downtown. We’re aware of that, but you have to remember – people thought it was crazy to build J. Turner Butler Boulevard and the Dame’s Point Bridge and now both of them are major arteries that no one would want to live without.

“People look at Downtown as what it is now. We’re looking at what Downtown will look like in 2030 and we’re getting ready for that today.”

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