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Jax Daily Record Friday, Aug. 28, 201512:00 PM EST

The question JTA has to answer about the Skyway: Keep it or dump it?

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by: David Chapman

Since its first runs back in 1989, the Skyway has had its share of critics.

The people mover has had nicknames like the “Riderless Express.” Some have deemed it a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The Downtown service also has had its share of supporters, evidenced by upward-ticking ridership in recent years. By the end of this year, it’s expected almost 1.4 million people will use the service this year — almost 1 million per year than just five years ago. That’s been boosted by free ridership since Sept. 1, 2012.

Despite the ups and down, the Skyway has arrived at a critical juncture in its lifetime.

The infrastructure is mostly solid. The vehicles used to ferry people throughout Downtown are not.

But, only six of the 10 vehicles remain in service and have a lifespan of another five years or so. That means the Jacksonville Transportation Authority has a tough question to answer — one with a high price tag, regardless of the direction it goes.

“It’s one of the most challenging questions this team faces,” said Nathaniel Ford, JTA’s CEO.

An answer, the JTA has determined, can come in one of four forms: overhaul it, buy new vehicles, decommission the system or repurpose it.

There’s an overhaul of the current vehicles. The ones passengers use today would be rehabilitated, including the obsolete operating system. That would buy the Skyway another 15-20 years for an estimated cost of just over $70 million.

Industry feedback sought by the JTA hasn’t come back favorable for this option.

Another option is new vehicles, ones that’s could fit the elevated system. It’s more expensive than an overhaul — estimates put it at a little over $85 million. But, the life would be extended to 25-40 years.

Both those options have mandatory expenses built in. While the infrastructure is good, there are still needs like new elevators, escalators, drainage and lighting at some of the stations.

If the Skyway is to be no more, there are a couple of options, too.

Decommissioning the system is possible, but expensive.

Under this scenario, the Skyway would continue along its useful life another five years or so. After that, it’s estimated to cost up to $25 million to tear down the system. Another mode of transportation would have to be found, such as buses, which would cost more than $3 million each year.

If either of the remaining two options are selected, the JTA would have to repay millions of dollars to the government.

The original decision to add the Skyway was bolstered by a $23.5 million federal grant to launch its first 0.7 miles, which cost a total of $34.6 million.

At that time the Skyway was built, it was just one of five similar systems in the U.S.

To date, there’s been $182 million invested in the Skyway. About half of that has come from the federal government as the Skyway expanded to eight stations and 2.5 miles.

JTA would be required to pay back a portion of the funds if the Skyway were to shut down in at least the next 20 years.

That amount would be almost $25 million in five years. Another $9 million would be owed to the Florida Department of Transportation. And the city would be in line for $4.3 million.

Those amounts to each entity gradually decline over the next 20 years and have to be a factor in any decision, Ford said. Overall, decommissioning is estimated to cost up to $79 million.

The last option would be repurposing the elevated infrastructure, perhaps using it as a pedestrian and bicycle platform like New York’s High Line or Chicago’s 606. The payback obligations are still there and another form of transportation would be needed, but the demolition costs wouldn’t be involved.

Early estimates have the price tag at up to $68 million for that option.

The JTA’s figures are early estimates, with some becoming more firm in the next 45 days or so.

The decision, Ford said, doesn’t come down to just money. The transportation needs for Downtown most believe is on an upswing also must be weighed. He lists the Shipyards, Healthy Town and other large-scale projects that will need mobility.

“The most important question,” Ford said, “is of all these planned activities … what mode of transportation are they going to need? And will the Skyway fit that bill?”

The JTA won’t be the only ones helping come up with that decision. Its board was presented the Skyway information Thursday during a board retreat. Over the next few months, Ford said stakeholders outside the organization — the JAX Chamber, the Civic Council, the Downtown Investment Authority, the mayor’s office, City Council, riders and others — will be asked for their input on how the Skyway fits into what Downtown is and wants to become.

The JTA board also decided Thursday it will be create a “blue ribbon panel,” comprising those stakeholders, to look over the information and make a decision. Isaiah Rumlin, the JTA board vice chair, will lead that effort.

Ford said there is no foregone conclusion. With price tags like this, the authority doesn’t want to make mistakes of the past when ridership and development wasn’t there to make the service as viable as it could be.

“We want to make sure this is a worthy investment,” he said.

The first part of the Skyway’s life is coming to an end.

In essence, it’s a matter of determining whether to double down on the investment of decades past or ripping up the old ideas and forging a new path.

Regardless of the decision, a couple things are certain. It will cost. And it’s sure to generate its share of supporters and critics alike.

***

Overhaul

Total: $70.2 million

Lifespan: 20 years

New vehicles

Total: $85.1 million

Lifespan: 25-40 years

Decommission

Total: $72.7 million-$78.5 million

Payback obligations: $38.1 million

(comprising, federal state, local)

Repurpose

Total: $64.8 million-$67.8 million

Payback obligations: $38.1 million

(comprising federal, state, local)

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(904) 356-2466

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