The Jacksonville (Fla.) Transportation Authority (JTA) recently received the distinguished honor of being named Outstanding Public Transportation System by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Selected in the mid-sized system category for providing more than four million but fewer than 20 million annual passenger trips, the award is well-earned when you consider the breadth of projects and improvements being undertaken by the agency.
The JTA encompasses 850 employees, 200 buses and trolleys, 26 community shuttles, 97 paratransit vehicles and an automated people mover, with an annual $230 million budget. The agency operates public bus service, ferry service, an automated monorail, paratransit service, and JTA also plans, designs and builds roads and bridges. “It is beneficial to be multimodal in that we get to look at mobility challenges holistically,” says JTA CEO Nathaniel P. Ford Sr. “Having it all under one umbrella allows a comprehensive, self-contained approach.”
When asked how JTA is able to manage all that is under the agency’s purview, Ford lauds his “fantastic team of professionals” that he works with on a daily basis. “They understand the importance of what we do and understand our vision and mission,” he says.
All transit agencies face funding issues and the JTA is no exception. “Funding the capital needs of the organization is one of our principal concerns,” Ford says. “We are grateful for a dedicated local option gas tax (LOGT), constitutional gas tax and sales tax; however, it still isn’t enough to meet all of the demands.”
Although the agency receives “great community support” from its stakeholders, there is no clear funding source to support modernization efforts, such as the revamping of its Skyway monorail system, according to Ford. “Our team is actively pursuing grants and enhancing relationships on the federal, state and local levels in an effort to increase the amount of funding received,” he explains. “Additionally, we are selling idle assets and using transit oriented development proceeds to help address this issue.”
The JTA is also challenged with providing high quality service in the largest city by land mass in the contiguous U.S. Because of that, Jacksonville/Duval County has low density. Along with the geographic size, Jacksonville has a large aging population that relies heavily on paratransit services. To that end, the agency is exploring potential partnerships with taxis and Uber to supplement that service.
Lastly, the JTA has a diverse portfolio of capital projects, all going on at the same time. These include a multimodal hub, a roadway and mobility corridors program, bus rapid transit, automated monorail updates and improvements to the local ferry service — more on these later. To help manage these efforts, JTA restructured the division and hired a VP of construction and engineering to oversee these critical projects and their budget.
Optimization delivers ROI
Although JTA has a lengthy to-do list, one critical project that has been crossed off and is consistently delivering enormous return on investment, is its Route Optimization Initiative (ROI) — the agency’s extensive route system overhaul.
“Without question, ROI was the most dramatic change to public transit in Jacksonville in the last 30 years,” says Ford. “When I arrived in Jacksonville, I listened to customers, operators, staff and elected officials. They all said the same thing — our system was not reliable and it took too long to get anywhere.”
The JTA’s answer to those concerns was ROI, which was implemented with no increase in the annual operating budget. JTA completely reconfigured its routes to make routes more direct, improve service frequency, provide more service in the evenings and weekends, and better coordinate schedules. Additionally, route management was changed from a zone concept to end-to-end route management, which is overseen by service delivery managers.
Overall ridership to date is up 4.6% in the last 12 months compared to the same period prior to ROI. On-time performance is up from 65.8% to an average of around 80%.
The agency regularly evaluates service performance and make necessary adjustments, explains Ford. To that end, JTA recently implemented an authority-wide performance program called JTA Enterprise Metrics Management System (JEMMS) to monitor certain key performance indicators throughout the organization. It not only provides a big picture overview, but allows management to drill down several layers to departmental areas and individual contributors.
“(ROI) is a monumental achievement,” says Ford. “In 18 months, our team assessed and completely changed an entire transit network and unveiled a contemporary transit system. This was done with no public outcry, which was a testament to the massive community outreach conducted. It was a Herculean effort that was executed almost flawlessly,” he explains.
CNG fleet conversion
Nearly a year after implementing its ROI plan, the agency marked another milestone by introducing CNG-fueled vehicles to its bus fleet. The 40-foot, low-floor BRT Plus vehicles manufactured by Gillig (see sidebar) are equipped with Cummins ISLG engines, ZF transmission and Thermo King AC. Vehicle amenities include onboard audio and visual information systems, Q’Straint’s Q’Pod wheelchair securement system, comfortable seating, real-time passenger information, bike racks and hand straps for standees.
“JTA and GILLIG have developed their BRT bus specifications to provide the rider with enhanced passenger amenities and comfort,” says Joe Policarpio, Gillig’s VP, sales and marketing. “These buses are equipped with such features as padded seats for a more comfortable ride, voice annunciation that helps the passenger know about their next stop, inclusive of larger internal display signs, Wi-Fi capability to stay connected during their trip and larger easy-to-read silver series destination signs.”
Eleven of the initial 23 buses are being operated on JTA’s new BRT service, which debuted in December 2015.
“We anticipate saving $9.2 million over a 15-year period by converting a minimum of 100 buses from diesel to CNG,” Ford says of the alternative fuel move.
JTA also negotiated a public-private partnership with Clean Energy, builder of the agency’s new CNG facility, which will support the First Coast Flyer-branded BRT service. In addition to fueling JTA’s fleet, a public access component of the fueling station opened January 2016.
The first leg of JTA’s First Coast Flyer BRT service, the 9.4-mile Green Line on the North Corridor, is part of a five-phase plan that will cover 57 miles and serve as the backbone to the regional transit system. First Coast Flyer features include direct, high-frequency service; 18 branded stations; complimentary Wi-Fi, a Park-n-Ride lot and real-time bus arrival information. It offers 10-minute frequency during weekday peak hours and 15-minute frequency in weekday off-peak hours.
Currently, the Green Line has a 94% on-time performance, while ridership continues to show a steady increase. The route averages 2,200 trips per weekday.
The next phase of the BRT service, the Southeast Corridor or “Blue Line,” is set to launch in early December 2016. It extends south 11.1 miles from Downtown to the Southside of Jacksonville where major job centers are located. Once completed, the service will allow customers to travel from the I-295 area in the north, all the way to the Southside/Avenues Walk without having to make any transfers.
The final phases of JTA’s BRT system — the East and Southwest corridors — are in the project development phase, with a total cost for the entire system tabbed at $124 million.
Key takeaways from development of JTA’s BRT project include maintaining a strong relationship with the FTA regional office and “making sure everyone has a seat at the table,” according to Ford. “It is essential to connect the design and construction teams with IT, finance, grants, operations, communications, community relations, government relations, legal, risk, safety and security.”
Piloting ‘sharing’ trends
Like most agencies, improving first-mile/last-mile connectivity to transit corridors is top of mind for JTA. “These types of opportunities are being evaluated,” says Ford. “We are actively learning from experiences in other areas and discussing what types of mobility on-demand opportunities we could engage as a pilot program.”
Partnership opportunities have been identified that could improve first-mile, last-mile connectivity to JTA’s First Coast Flyer corridors, he explains. “Walking and biking are an important part of the first-mile, last-mile approach and our Mobility Corridors program is critical to improving safety and accessibility.”
JTA has developed and is currently implementing projects to improve ADA access as well as bike and pedestrian safety and accessibility on its high-frequency corridors. The agency is also investing $4 million on the North Corridor First Coast Flyer BRT to create paths to the station for this service.
“Lastly, our FY2017 budget has set aside funding to research emerging technologies and trends and develop strategies to position JTA for the changing transportation landscape,” Ford says. “This will consider such issues as autonomous and connected vehicle technology as well as trends in the sharing economy.”
Planned Multimodal Hub
The agency is also planning development of a new multimodal hub in the heart of downtown Jacksonville. The $33 million Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center (JRTC) will integrate key local, regional intercity service in one location. “For future growth, operational efficiency, safety and connectivity with other modes, the new facility and location is an important transportation improvement,” Ford explains.
The project is also seen as an opportunity to grow public transportation ridership in general, by improving connectivity between the various modes. “In addition, it is prime area for redevelopment therefore, we are partnering with the Downtown Investment Authority and the City to make sure this project is a catalyst for transit oriented development.”
Currently, the main city bus station, Rosa Parks Transit Station, which also serves the Skyway elevated people mover and the First Coast Flyer BRT system, is constrained for growth. The 18-bay transit station is also bordered by four lanes of one-way traffic on each side.
The new center will have up to 26 bays that are connected by Greyhound and Megabus, the Skyway Express and the First Coast Flyer BRT service. The JRTC will also accommodate options like taxis, carsharing and bikeshare. In the future, JTA will be looking to connect intercity rail (Amtrak and All Aboard Florida) and regional commuter rail. The soon-to-be “iconic facility,” which is scheduled to break ground in January 2017, will also house the new JTA administrative offices.
From a sustainability perspective, the agency’s goal is to achieve, at a minimum, an LEED silver rating for the facility. “We will be looking at energy and water conservation opportunities, as well as, amenities like a green roof terrace area,” Ford says. “As a transit facility located in a redevelopment zone, it is ideally suited to achieve LEED certification.”
Modernizing monorail, ferry
Other projects in the works include modernizing JTA’s Skyway monorail system as well as the St. Johns River Ferry. The 2.5-mile, bi-directional, fully automated monorail system, which functions as Jacksonville’s downtown circulator, is interconnected with JTA’s Trolley service and provides customers with expanded mobility in the downtown area. As part of the agency’s modernization program, JTA is reviewing vehicle types to replace the aging trains, which are at the end of their useful life as well as looking into potential expansion locations and cost.
And, if JTA didn’t have enough mobility options in its lineup, the agency took ownership of the St. Johns River Ferry in March 2016 as part of an agreement with the City of Jacksonville to extend JTA’s six-cent gas tax until 2036. The car and passenger service connects the north and south ends of Florida State Road A1A with daily service between Mayport Village and Ft. George Island. In addition to infrastructure improvements, JTA will work to enhance the ferry with potential options, such as mobile ticketing. “The ferry has a significant economic impact and improves the quality of life in this community,” Ford says.