The Cawton Report: Return of ferry caps busy year for JTA

CEO Nathaniel Ford able to leverage D.C. connections to secure federal money.

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  • | 5:20 a.m. November 1, 2018
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The Jacksonville Transportation Authority is winding down what’s been a busy year under CEO Nathaniel Ford Sr.

On Tuesday, Ford, along with city and state officials, celebrated the authority’s latest project — restoring the St. Johns River Ferry in Mayport to service after months of repairs.

It reopened to the public Thursday.

JTA awarded Cocoa-based C&D Construction Inc. the $4.5 million contract in 2015 to complete the multiphase ferry rehabilitation project.

Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO Nathaniel Ford Sr.
Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO Nathaniel Ford Sr.

The latest phase halted service for nearly two months while crews replaced and refurbished the ferry slip walls, fenders, walkways, bulkheads and made mechanical and cosmetic upgrades to the current ship, the Jean Ribault. Additional improvements will continue through January.

“The authority is working very hard to keep up with the speed of change,” Ford said. “Upgrading the ferry was essential to Mayport and for those on the other side of the St. Johns River who use it every day.”

The vehicle and passenger ferry is operated by HMS Ferries Inc. and connects the north and south ends of Florida A1A with daily service between Mayport Village and Fort George Island.

The 2.5-mile journey takes about a half-hour.

The ferry operates 6 a.m. to 7:15 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. on the weekend.

Ford said average weekday ridership is 1,200 passengers and around 2,000 on Saturday and Sunday.

He expects those figures to continue to rise.

“It’s such an integral part of Jacksonville,” he said. “We’re proud the city allowed us to take it over.”

JTA has owned the ferry and the land on both sides of the river since 2016.

A busy year

The ferry refurbishment is one of several projects JTA managed in 2018 and will continue to work on in 2019.

“We were at almost a dead stop when I came on as CEO about five years ago, and we had a host of projects that were sitting on the shelf,” Ford said.

JTA soon will open the largest expansion of its First Coast Flyer Bus Rapid Transit project, the East Corridor or “Red Line.” The 18.5-mile route runs from Third Street in Jacksonville Beach to Downtown Jacksonville.

Ford said the East Corridor is scheduled to go online Dec. 3.

“At the same time, we’ve got the Regional Transportation Center that’s being constructed in LaVilla, so we’re doing both horizontal and vertical work right now,” Ford said.

The $33 million transportation center is the second phase of JTA’s push into LaVilla that includes the Greyhound Intercity Bus Terminal that opened in April.

The 85-foot-tall building will serve as JTA’s headquarters and as a transportation hub for bus and Skyway services.

Seeking grants

The developments are active, in part, because of Ford’s ability to secure federal and state funding to offset construction costs.

Since October 2017, Ford has chaired the American Public Transportation Association board, a group comprising regional and local transportation authorities that lobbies for transit-friendly policy at the federal level.

The bridge of the St. Johns River Ferry.
The bridge of the St. Johns River Ferry.

“The work that I’ve been able to do with the APTA has given me a seat at the table with the decision-makers,” Ford said.

“While they have hundreds of projects that they look at to fund each year, I think the JTA projects and the Jacksonville community have been uplifted to them,” he said.

Ford said the ferry project is an example of leverage in connecting with federal officials like Jane Williams, the acting Federal Transit Authority administrator, and others to secure grants.

JTA has received more than $13 million in grant money from the U.S. Department of Transportation since 2014 for the ferry project, including a $3.3 million Passenger Ferry Grant the authority secured in May.

The authority also is working on an application for a federal BUILD grant to develop an “innovation corridor” along East Bay Street from LaVilla to the sports and entertainment complex.

The JTA bid is in competition with the city of Jacksonville, which is trying to secure a $12.5 million grant for Phase II of the Hart Bridge ramp removal project.

JTA is seeking $10 million from another $60 million federal grant program to help it convert the aging Skyway into a system for automated vehicles.

“We do feel like there’s multiple bites at the apple to help get the U2C going,” said Ford, referencing the authority’s development of autonomous vehicles, called the Ultimate Urban Circulator.

“Frankly, our reputation is one that’s very positive with federal officials,” he said.

He said that when he arrived in 2012 at JTA, the organization restructured its engineering and construction teams to include talent he brought from stints in San Francisco and Atlanta.

“When it comes to construction, the JTA now has the gravitas, the experience and the capability to deliver,” Ford said.

“The entire JEA team is now seen as the best in class in their areas.”



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