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The Skyway

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FINALLY, a positive article about the Skyway!

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By JUDY WELLS

The Times-Union

Jacksonville's Skyway Express has been the butt of many jokes since the automated tram line opened 15 years ago. It doesn't go anywhere, critics say. And nobody rides it anyway.

Just try to tell that to Tom Dahlgren, a market manager for CSX who works at the BellSouth Building downtown. "I ride it basically every day," Dahlgren said. He parks at the Kings Avenue garage and rides the Skyway to work. And he's not the only one. He said he recognizes about a dozen riders who share his schedule. "Rarely in the morning are you alone."

Cheryl Boehm, Skyway director for the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, said more than 2,700 people rode the tram every weekday in May and June. Ridership peaks between 8 and 9 a.m., and the trains fill up again around lunchtime and at the end of the workday.

We watched the tram on a recent Wednesday, riding from 7:30 to 10:45 a.m., 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 7 to 8 p.m. A riderless train wasn't spotted until 10:33 a.m. and within an hour, the lunch crowd was filling them up again.

The 2.5-mile Skyway system costs 35 cents to ride. Ten two-car trains run through downtown and across the river into parts of San Marco. There are stops at the Kings Avenue parking garage, Riverplace and San Marco on the Southbank, and at the Prime Osborn Convention Center, Jefferson Street, Central Station (across from BellSouth tower), Hemming Plaza and the FCCJ Downtown Campus on the Northbank. Passengers can switch trains at Central Station. The system runs 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays and is closed on Sundays except for special events.

For downtown commuters, the Skyway's a pretty good deal. They can park at the Kings Avenue garage or in Park-and-Ride lots near the convention center for much lower monthly rates than the downtown garages charge.

Parking at the convention center lots runs $27.98 to $33.33 a month, depending on proximity to the station, including a swipe card for the Skyway. In the city core, parking can run $90 or more. Susan McGehee, who works at BellSouth, used to park at the convention center but now uses the Kings Avenue garage, where it costs $32 a month for covered parking, $27 for uncovered.

"Covered parking is way, way cheaper than downtown," she said, adding that commuters such as herself who work flextime have longer waits for Skyway trains as fewer cars are running during non-peak hours. "We tease and call ourselves the red-headed step- children. If they have to take a train out of service, it will be ours. One of the really nice things, when we come across the river, we have something pretty to look at."

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority, which runs the Skyway, should consider putting Gavin Robinson on the payroll. A former banker turned student in Web design, he's been riding the Skyway and bus system for three years, despite having a new car in the garage of his Miramar home. "I'm always trying to promote it. I figure if you're paying taxes, and this is going to run anyway, might as well use it."

Northsider Daniel Wimberly, taking his second ride in a month, said he may become a convert. "I'm heading to the bank right now; it really is a nice convenience when I have to do some running around downtown."

Not everyone on the Skyway is commuting to work. Some use the system to run errands. You'll also find quite a few visitors to town riding the Skyway, drawn by the novelty and convenience, or folks taking the kids out for a cheap joy ride.

Larry Price, who works at CSX, was going to a doctor's appointment. "For 35 cents, it beats walking, especially on a hot day," he said.

Vikki Mick-Ritz and her son, Brady-Chase Mick-Ritz, 6, live at the beach and come in several times a month so Brady-Chase can ride. "He loves it," she said. "Sometimes we can ride back and forth five or six times. It's great entertainment."

At Central Station, Lafayette and Noreen Royal, their daughter, Linda Ramos-Royal, and her daughter Claire, 9, got on; all were riding for the first time. It was something to do until they headed to the airport; the Ramos-Royals were returning home to Manhattan and their flight had been delayed.

Some homeless people also ride the Skyway. Edward Alexander Diedrich, a yellow plastic bag in one hand and part of a Coke can in the other, is the sort of rider many use as an excuse not to try public transportation or even to venture downtown. He said he was going to San Marco to see about his motorcycle. The native of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, was neatly dressed, articulate if not always coherent, as he spoke about his mechanical triumphs and inventions, how much money he had saved Greyhound here and in Texas, his current homelessness, banking mix-ups and all the things for he has been arrested, such as ringing a bell. "The sign said, 'Ring bell for assistance,' and I needed help."

But Vanessa Grace, a commuter from the Westside, said she's not bothered by the people she encounters on the trains. "I'm never afraid," she said. "I've seen a couple of questionable characters, but they don't bother you."

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Answers to some of your questions

Ride the Skyway once, twice or more and you're bound to have questions. We called the Jacksonville Transportation Authority for answers.

Q: Why does it make those "unscheduled stops," usually between San Marco and downtown? According to Mike Miller, JTA spokesman, "It's a safety measure." The computer is ensuring there is enough room between that car and the car in front of it already stopped at Central Station, the route's busiest.

Q: Is each car monitored? There are cameras installed, but it's more for recording than monitoring; no one's actually watching. There is someone monitoring the cameras at stations.

Q: Why don't the cars have straps you can hang onto? "If we could get enough riders to need them, we'll put them on," said Miller. "What we do have for crowds are the poles."

Q: Why wasn't the Skyway open July 4? Everything occurred at Metro Park and, based on past holiday experience, there wouldn't be enough riders to open it just for the fireworks. "Most of the time [on holidays] we don't get a lot of riders unless you get people from out of town," said Skyway Director Cheryl Boehm. "Local people don't ride."

Q: Why are there fewer cars on some routes during the day? Probably preventive maintenance, said Boehm. "Usually they to do it during off peak, after 9 a.m., or we may get an indication the car is having some kind of problem."

Q: Why did the turnstile refuse my money or ask for too much? "It's mechanical," said Boehm, and the culprit is lint. Money is dirty. Coins pick up lint from pocket and purse bottoms and that clogs the delicate machinery. The fare boxes have been there awhile, exposed to the vagaries of weather, and will break down. When they do, a technician is sent out to fix them. If you use the Skyway regularly, you can buy a monthly swipe card.

Q: How can I get a free ticket to park and ride like the federal employees? "That is a program we will be more than happy to work out with any employer," said Boehm, adding that it is a good benefit for workers that takes advantage of pre-tax dollars as well as cutting down on parking costs and downtown traffic.

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Because it doesn't hit any residential it will not ever be mass transit. I do use it weekly as it is good for cross-river and incity travel. If we could extend to five points and to A. Philip Randolph, you'd see a big bump in ridership. It has amazed me though just how many more people ride it now than 5 years ago.

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I'm one of those people people who ride quite often for recreation. My 2 year old loves the ride and its pretty cheap. It also gives me a reason to roam the streets of the downtown area.

As the UrbanCore stated, the main problem with the Skyway is, it doesn't go into any residential areas and not enough high destination areas. I believe, the skyway's fortune could quickly turn around if it is expanded to Philip Randolph, Springfield, Five Points, and in the vicinity of San Marco Square (maybe along FEC's tracks, from Kings Ave. garage to Atlantic Blvd.).

All four of these are simple short expansions (less than a mile each) that will take the system into dense residential neighborhoods, and high destination points, like the Bay St. Town Center, the Sports District, Five Points, & San Marco Square.

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They're planning on extending it down Bay St, but there are no designated funds for it. It would be a smart extension, allowing for tons of Park & Ride on game days. Also, Berkman Plaza and the Crapyards will also have service. And once they bring rapid transit lines downtown, a multimodal center will connect the two systems. I think that as more people move downtown, the system will get more use. There are a few residential developments taking place near Hemming Plaza station. But Riverside needs to be included.

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Yes! San Marco Place and The Strand are next to Riverplace Station. And I'm sure they'll extend it down Bay Street, which will gain usage from Berkman Plaza and the Shipyards.

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If there is an increase, they need to probably get more rail cars for the skyway if the current ones can't fit more than 56 people. This ought to fit around 112 people in them just to accomodate the 5 minute peak frequency and the 8 minute frequency all day long, plus Jaguar game days.

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The car capacity won't be an issue - if you notice, the cars have a front and a back, but each car is capable of having two middle cars between the two (each station is built for it as well)

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http://web.presby.edu/~jtbell/transit/Jacksonville/

Interesting to see what the cars looked like when MATRA ran things, I didn't live here back then so I don't remember that they looked like.

Also, does anyone know where I can read that link on the bottom of the page called "$200 Million Ride to Nowhere, a report broadcast on ABC World News Tonight, 29 July 2002."

I clicked on the link, but it doesn't work..... It seems that in most peoples eyes, the skyway is a total disaster.... hopefully with all the new residental development going on inthe southbank, the ridership will finally rise closer to the projections.

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I've been here a few times and like many of his pictures. After much of this new residential development is done, ridership will easily double to triple.

The ABC article has probably been moved to an archive at ABC's web site.

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Nice tour, thanks for posting it.  However it looks as if almost no one uses the thing based on the photography.  Is that the case?

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He probably took those pictures while everyone was at work. I'm sure there are probably more people riding it in the morning/lunchtime/evening.

edit: Oops, that link doesn't have the old skyway pics. here is where I saw those: http://world.nycsubway.org/us/jacksonville/

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In the past, most people who ride the skyway are office workers, so naturally the busiest hours are weekday mornings, lunches & afternoons.

Nearly 800,000 people rode the Skyway last year, up from a little over 500,000 the previous year. Expect to see numbers jump even farther when The Strand, The Peninsula, The Carling, 20 West and San Marco Place, all under construction within a block of a skyway station, are completed. Numbers will also recieve a significant boost with the proposed Riverpointe, San Marco Riverwalk and if San Marco Place's developers can pull off the deal with JTA, to bring an urban retail center featuring a Publix, to the Kings Avenue Station.

Although there are expansion plans, I think its time to extend the skyway along Riverside Ave (to Five Points, imo) and to Alltel Stadium. Ridership would easily double and maybe triple, by providing direct access to these hot destination points, a mile or so, from the nearest skyway line.

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Yeah, lunchtime seems to be the most crowded time. I think that ridership would really increase if they extended it down Bay Street, to the Shipyards and the Stadium. That would open up new park & ride possibilities to take advantage of all that parking at the Sports Complex. Also, ridership would be great on game days. With a full system like that, people would actually use it.

Also, I really wish they'd build something in that triangular parking lot next to San Marco Station. And build something on the grass lot next to Jefferson. Other than that, most of the other stations all seem to have planned/under-construction porjects nearby.

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I rode the skyway last Saturday afternoon (when there are virtually zero office workers downtown) and it was FULL. I don't mean that there were a couple of other people, I mean that it was shoulder-to-shoulder standing room only in the train. (Some of the crowd was probably due to a street basketball event, but clearly not all).

I think the myth of the "riderless express" will eventually die once most of these residential projects come online ... the vast majority of which are within a 5 minute walk of a skyway station.

In fact, the whole "riderless express" thing already strikes me as anachronisitc. In the past, it was a fair insult. I remember taking a few skyway trips back around 2000 without ever seeing anyone else. However, within the past two years, I have never been alone on a platform or in a train cab, regardless of the time of day I rode.

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Other than 92.7 FM radio, I have no idea. Even then, I didn't here about it till Friday afternoon. BTW, I take my boys on the skyway about once a month, because they like riding the trains. I've also noticed an increase in the amount of people riding the train. It stays packed when conventions are held at the Prime Osborn. Expand the thing to Alltel and watch ridership pick up on it, not only on gameday, but also when events are held at the arena and ballpark. I'm suprised nobody tried to expand it to the stadium, once the city found out it won its bid for the super bowl a couple of years ago.

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I'm suprised nobody tried to expand it to the stadium, once the city found out it won its bid for the super bowl a couple of years ago.

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Because that would have been the logical thing to do and as I've learned in politics, logic and reason are put on the back burner.

I think when they make the new Matthews, the Skyway should extend to the stadium and include a Skyway line into Arlington to Regency and on to the Beaches.

Make it that way so more federal funding will be included in the overall project because it includes a mass transit portion.

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I was surprised at the Basketball competition as well when I went down there this past Saturday. I took my mother and grandmother to the Cummer, a Skyway trip to see downtown (plus a drive tour), and then we ate dinner at the Landing.

Neither of them has ever been on the Skyway and both really enjoyed the experience (except when every coin collector was jammed at the Central station on our return trip to Kings Ave garage).

They even commented how fast all of the trash on the street was picked up when we were leaving (we got to downtown around 5 and left around 7).

They made mention of how nice Hemming Plaza and the Federal courthouse looked. They also mentioned how neat the different stations looked, that they were not all exactly the same and how they loved the look of the bridges as we left (it was dark by then). Just wish the fountain would have been running as well.

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Friendship fountain, around 3:15 we went across the Acosta toward Riverside and it was off, then around 5:00 returning on the Main Street Bridge it was off. Returning on the Sky way from the Kings Ave garage shortly after until we returned from the Landing around 7:00 it was off.

Not a big deal, just a bit suprised to see it off on a Saturday afternoon and early evening, but My mom just emailed me saying she can not wait to go on another tour of Downtown and see some other things. My grandmother has a hard time walking far, so we had to stick to cars and the skyway for the most part, except the walk from Central station to the Landing, and of course the walks around the Cummer.

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Other than 92.7 FM radio, I have no idea.  Even then, I didn't here about it till Friday afternoon.  BTW, I take my boys on the skyway about once a month, because they like riding the trains.  I've also noticed an increase in the amount of people riding the train.  It stays packed when conventions are held at the Prime Osborn.  Expand the thing to Alltel and watch ridership pick up on it, not only on gameday, but also when events are held at the arena and ballpark.  I'm suprised nobody tried to expand it to the stadium, once the city found out it won its bid for the super bowl a couple of years ago.

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I think the reason for the lack of Skyway expansion is money.

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Money could be found if officials believe it should be a priority. Charlotte, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, St. Louis, Salt Lake City....and the list goes on, have all found a way to pay for the expansion of mass transit in recent years. Unfortunately, like the convention center, we're a couple of years behind other large cities, when it comes to issues like this. However, lack of money isn't the excuse considering we've found a way to get most of our major road projects underway recently. Expanding it to reach its potential is just not a priority because locals still don't see the benefit of it.

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