With its prestige and population climbing, Jacksonville likes to
count itself among the select cities on the road to first-tier
But with its own roads getting crowded, Northeast Florida lags
behind a growing number of communities that are working to
develop mass transit systems, especially rail systems, to ease
their traffic problems.
Though construction of commuter rail has been discussed for
more than a decade, for practical purposes Jacksonville has yet
to cross the starting line.
"It's 20 years out," predicted Mayor John Delaney, who said the
city needs to plan now for mass transit and buy right of way for
rail corridors. "We've got to get to that. But I think it's a
With a city panel examining Jacksonville's growth in coming
months, local officials and rail supporters say that perhaps now
is the time to start working seriously on a transit system, or
decide to cut bait and just build more roads.
By contrast to Jacksonville, mid-sized communities from
Raleigh-Durham, N.C., to Salt Lake City, Utah, are already
working to get money and community consensus for rail projects
they want to bring on line in several years.
Their goal is to make trains a surrogate for the car. Tired of
widening roads that fill up almost immediately, they want to
build rail systems so convenient that people will want to use
them to go to work, shopping and on trips downtown.
Within Florida, Hillsborough County and the city of Orlando are
preparing final, detailed plans they'll take to Washington to
seek federal aid for rail construction. South Florida's Tri-Rail
commuter train already carries travelers in Dade, Broward and
Palm Beach counties.
Jacksonville's only experience with rail transit, construction
of the downtown Automated Skyway Express, has been slow and
But facing growing traffic problems, the city can't afford to
not improve its public transit, advocates argue.
"If we think growth and bringing people to the community is
good, we ought to think about how we can accommodate them," said
Patricia Greason, who lives in a fast-growing subdivision off
Butler Boulevard. "The idea of continuing to consider auto
travel by itself . . . is not really going to do it," said
Greason, a private transportation consultant who specializes in
Especially in the South, buses have been widely dismissed as
transit few people will ride if they can afford to own a car.
That leaves cities to juggle a range of rail choices, from
streetcar-like light rail to big commuter trains and subwaystyle
heavy rail. Unlike buses, rail buffs point to studies that show
substantial middleand upper-class ridership.
Supporters say rail offers two things growing cities want: a
magnet to pull construction and financial investment toward
selected corridors, and a longterm way to blunt the traffic
backups that snarl developing neighborhoods.
Hillsborough County's rail plan has excited some builders who
see retailers, office complexes and residential developments
benefiting from a daily flow of thousands of people past their
property. Local officials plan a 70-mile, $310 million system
that will serve a list of high-traffic areas.
Several major developments have asked to have rail stations on
their property, said Ed Crawford, a Tampa area rail advocate.
"By simply selecting where we build the rail stations, we can
steer development," he said. …