$200 Million Ride to Nowhere

ByCharles Herman

J A C K S O N V I L L E, Fla., July 29, 2002 -- The 2.5-mile Jacksonville Automated Skyway Express is a model of efficiency. Completely automated and controlled from a central operation center, the Skyway makes eight stops throughout the northeastern Florida city that is split in two by the St. John's River.

The only problem: hardly anyone rides it.

"It's strictly a waste of money from beginning to end," decried longtime Jacksonville critic Marvin Edwards. He blames the builder and supporter of the Skyway, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA).

"They lied about ridership projections," explained Edwards. "They said 56,000 a day at first, then dropped that to 30,000, then last it was 18,000 to 19,000."

Currently, the Skyway sees 3,000 riders per day who pay 35 cents a trip. In fiscal 2001, the Skyway brought in $513,694 in revenue but its expenses were $3.5 million.

Fights for Funding

The Skyway was first proposed back in 1971. It took more than a decade before the funding — federal, state and local — could be secured to start construction. At the time, the goal was mainly for development so the Skyway to connect the downtown core with parking facilities away from downtown.

The Jacksonville Skyway was part of three demonstration projects to see if "people-mover" systems could stimulate business expansion in downtown centers. Detroit and Miami received federal funds for similar projects.

Some officials within the Department of Transportation's Federal Transit Authority questioned the ridership projections for the Jacksonville Skyway.

In an interview with ABCNEWS' John Martin in 1994, Federal Transit Administration official Gordon Linton said, "We and this department, this administration and previous administrations, have not supported it."

Nevertheless, Congress eventually provided more than half the funds for the $182 million Skyway.

In 1987 construction began on the first 0.7-mile portion of the system.

"It was mainly for political reasons, not transportation reasons," explained former Rep. Bob Carr, who chaired the committee that approved funding for transportation projects in the early 1990s. "Like so many projects, they get a camel's nose under the tent and then it gets very very difficult to stop them."

Few Riders From the Start

In 1989 the first section was completed and opened to the public. Jacksonsville's transit leaders projected more than 10,000 people would ride the Skyway a day on this 0.7-mile starter section.

Instead, only 1,200 rode the Skyway.

In 1993 Transit Authority member Miles Francis defended the system to ABCNEWS. "Until this thing is finished, there's no way to measure its performance or its potential."

Now it's finished and the Jacksonville Transit Authority is still waiting for the riders to come.

Open for Business

In November 2000, the complete Skyway opened to the public. Nearly two years later, with ridership at an average of 3,000 a day, the Skyway has not met even the projections for the starter section.

"No one will argue with the fact that ridership is not where we would like it to be," admitted Steve Arrington, director of engineering with the Jacksonville Transit Authority. He says the lack of riders is attributed to economic recessions in downtown Jacksonville in the early 1990s that led to a decrease in development in the area.

"Any number of things predicted to occur that didn't occur development-wise has an effect," he added. "Fuel prices, parking prices."

Arrington still believes in the Skyway and expects to reach its ridership goals. "You don't build a system like this or a roadway for the next four years," said Arrington. "You try to built it for the next 20 to 30 years."

Riding an empty car from one station to another, critic Edwards disagreed. "This really is a public rip-off and a total waste of money that could have gone for something not quite as fancy, but a lot more practical."

ABCNEWS' Jeffrey Kofman contributed to this story.

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