Public transportation in Jacksonville has long lagged behind the options available in other major cities – but Jacksonville Transportation Authority is clearly intent on changing that.
In just the past few years, JTA has commissioned a brand new regional transportation center, and plans have been announced for a Skyway revitalization involving autonomous vehicles.
But one of their most intriguing plans for the future is one that’s still a while away from being realized: transportation via commuter rail.
JTA began studying the plausibility of commuter rail in Jax as early as 2008. These studies resulted in the identification of seven corridors that would be reasonable for development. From there, they chose three primary candidates: a line from downtown Jax to St. Augustine, one from downtown to Green Cove Springs, and one from downtown to Yulee.
Commuter rail in Jacksonville seems like a natural fit. After all, the infrastructure is already largely in place because of the city’s status as a major railroad hub. In many places new tracks could simply be laid parallel to existing ones, rather than having to clear significant amounts of land to build new routes.
Not to mention, it would be a nice return to Jacksonville’s rich history of train travel, harkening back to the early-20th century days when railcars were by far the city’s most successful public transit venture.
So here’s how the routes would work.
The downtown-to-St. Augustine route – referred to by JTA as the Southeast Corridor – would run parallel to Florida East Coast Railway’s tracks along Philips Highway. It would extend 38 miles and would feature 13 stations. The trip from downtown to St. Augustine, including stops, would take just over 50 minutes.
The downtown-to-Green Cove Springs route, also known as the Southwest Corridor, would run along tracks owned by CSX and Norfolk Southern. This line would span 29 miles, with 12 stations and an estimated travel time of 48 minutes from end to end.
The North Corridor, going from downtown to Yulee, would be the shortest at 23 miles long, but would have 15 stations. Travel time is estimated at 40 minutes.
These routes would provide faster, easier access to various key locations. Perhaps most significantly, the Southeast Corridor would simplify public transportation to and from the ever-growing communities in St. Johns County.
And of course, if these routes are developed and perform on pace with expectations – or even exceed expectations – more routes would likely be planned. This could even include connections with rail systems in cities like Tallahassee or Orlando, providing quicker and simpler transit between the cities.
So when will commuter rail become a reality – or will it ever?
As of right now, the commuter rail project definitely seems to be taking a back seat to other, higher-priority JTA projects. We can likely expect the Skyway revamp, at the very least, to be completed prior to any rail project being launched.
In recent years, the only news coming from the rail project was that more research and resident surveys are being conducted.
That being said, it’s clear that this project is not just a hypothetical. JTA has already invested well over $1 million into research and planning, and in 2013 they identified the Southeast Corridor as the first route to be constructed.
In the same year, the St. Augustine City Commission voted in favor of development of the Southeast Corridor.
It’s a project that has the potential to completely change public transportation in and around the First Coast. So while it may still be off in the distance, it’s something worth keeping an eye out for.