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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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