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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Jacksonville, Fla., seeks funds for rail, bus hub

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It's a project that could improve public transportation in Northeast Florida while also helping to bring back the historic LaVilla section of downtown Jacksonville, the Florida Times-Union reports. For almost 20 years, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority and the Florida Department of Transportation have been working on a plan to create a regional transportation center that would house Amtrak, Greyhound, bus rapid transit and, possibly, commuter rail -- all at the existing Prime Osborn Convention Center.

The idea has remained in the conceptual stage because of a lack of money, although the Florida Department of Transportation has spent more than $10 million in design and environmental studies over the years. But JTA now has a chance to get about $63 million in federal stimulus money that would allow construction to begin on the first phase of the transportation center next year.

The total cost of the project is about $180 million. Construction could start about seven months after the first-phase money comes in. That phase would run from Forsyth to Adams streets and include a traffic management center -- a four-story structure that would house JTA, the Florida Department of Transportation, the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization, a sheriff's substation and offices for the Florida Highway Patrol. There would also be about 200 additional parking spaces, retail stores along Johnson and Forsyth streets, a public plaza facing Johnson Street, an enclosed bus rapid transit station with 16 bus bays and a new Greyhound bus station between Houston and Adams streets.

"Our project is essentially shovel-ready, with very limited real estate," said Steve Arrington, JTA director of resource development. The current plan has been on the books since early 2008.

Future phases would include a new Amtrak station adjacent to the existing Prime Osborn and historic Jacksonville Union Terminal, additional retail stores along Johnson Street, and a parking garage with about 2,000 more spaces. Amtrak would move from its present location on Clifford Lane off New Kings Road into downtown.

The existing Prime Osborn could function as a train station when it's not being used for conventions or other events, Arrington said, although he said exactly how that would work hasn't been determined.

Competition is fierce for $1.5 billion in stimulus money that will be allocated this winter. The U.S. Department of Transportation has received about 1,400 applications equaling $57 billion from every state, spokeswoman Olivia Alair said.

If the stimulus money doesn't come through, U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said he'll try for the money by putting earmarks in future appropriation bills.

Without stimulus funding, JTA will probably take a piecemeal approach of getting different funding over several years, Arrington said. Meanwhile, he and others are trying to sell the transportation center as an urban growth hub that could encourage restaurants, businesses and people to move into the downtown area, creating more than the 25 jobs that would result from the first phase. Arrington said cities such as Charlotte and Memphis built transportation centers similar to what JTA wants and retail businesses followed.

A transportation center could also become the savior of the little-used Skyway. JTA thinks Skyway ridership would increase because the Convention Center station would be located in the middle of the new transportation center.

However, the $184-million Skyway -- also built with federal money - could also turn out to be the strongest argument against a transportation center. What little ridership there has been dropped by more than 20 percent in the past two years, and the rosy estimates that were thrown about when the Skyway was being built in the '80s were never met.

Arrington blames the ridership drop on the recession and thinks the primary problem with the Skyway is that there's no good way for people to access it. More downtown development, and a transportation network that drops people off at the Skyway, would increase ridership, he said.

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