FIGHTIN' WORDS

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Imagine what One Spark would look like if Jacksonville had a decent mass transit system

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Having seen both events — the 2005 Super Bowl and the recently concluded One Spark — come and go, I have to agree with those who argue that the 2014 One Spark probably has the most staying power. It featured the best of Jacksonville: an aspirational, entrepreneurial spirit, one much more yoked to the energy of the Millenials than the ennui of Generation X.

One Spark was an event that could only happen in a Big City, one with sufficient human capital and business presence to properly host and showcase it. By almost all markers, it was a success. But it also revealed one of the biggest flaws of the Bold New City: a transportation infrastructure that's deeply antiquated and perilously flawed.

It should be said that, dealing with the laughably limited resources at their disposal, the One Spark team did as well as could be expected. Remote parking at EverBank Field and school buses running shuttles handled a lot of the load, as did the Skyway — which eclipsed the aforementioned Super Bowl and set new usage records. That's a great thing, on both counts. But school buses are the ultimate in sad-sack, ad hoc solutions.

Traffic was a nightmare — the sort of thing one might expect in D.C. or New York or London. And it probably could have been avoided — if city planners, when they were pushing infrastructure projects, had actually embraced light rail (like the Bay Area's BART) as they expanded city limits deeper into Duval County and beyond.

Ironically, streetcars were once part of Jacksonville's transportation vision. From the 1890s to 1936, streetcar lines were part of the urban landscape. They facilitated travel from Pablo Beach (Jacksonville Beach), as they met up with the St. Johns River ferry Downtown, ran down Main and crossed Bay Street. But streetcars were not the wave of the future. By the late 1930s, they were a thing of the past — and so was reliable mass transit in a meaningful way.

Even if electric streetcars were anachronisms, Jacksonville's unique expansion pattern lent itself to light rail — and this is something that most conveniently could have been implemented during the Duval County consolidation a half-century ago.

Consolidation happened for a variety of reasons — primary among them, a desire by local power brokers to ensure that the city continued to vote white and didn't find its politics dominated by African-Americans. As the suburbs expanded, light rail could've expanded with them, connecting them to the urban core.

The choice was made; it didn't happen.

More recently, we saw a lot of building off the back of the Delaney administration's Better Jacksonville Plan, including road construction projects galore. But light rail wasn't on the table. That's shameful, given what we have in its stead: a Byzantine bus system, confusing to almost anyone who hazards to casually use it, a system whose routes can last for hours and involve multiple transfers, depending on where you're trying to go. (Don't worry, JTA execs still get paid no matter how much you suffer.) Add to it a sclerotic interstate system, which sees bumper-to-bumper traffic for miles on end on the daily.

We hear so much talk about the Next Level from Mayor Brown. You know what would really be Next Level? Taking steps to actually solve our city's crippling transportation problems — with light rail, running parallel to existing highway systems. This needs to be funded, and built, by any means necessary.

Does City Hall have the brass to take it on? Doubtful. But if I were running for mayor, especially in a crowded primary field, it would behoove me to demonstrate the kind of vision we haven't seen here since the 20th Century. (Free tip, guys.).

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