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JTA looks at private development opportunities along possible commuter rail to St. Augustine (Courtesy of the Jacksonville Business Journal) — Someday, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority would like to see commuter rail running between downtown Jacksonville and St. Augustine.

First, it wants to see if private-sector development would support such a project.

“We know we are looking at commuter rail,” JTA CEO Nathaniel Ford Sr. told the Business Journal. “We see doing a study like this helps us with the development of the project and potential revenue to support the building of the station. When you look at the commuter rail operation, there’s an opportunity for private investment to help support the operation and the construction of the operation.”

To see what the potential is for such support, JTA is in the process of hiring WSP USA Inc. to study the feasibility of transit-oriented development along a potential 38-mile light rail corridor between downtown and St. Augustine. 

The goal of the study, Ford said, is to identify development opportunities that would offset the cost of erecting commuter rail stations. Such opportunities, known as transit-oriented development, could include residential housing, retail and restaurants around the station. 

While such development may not directly generate revenue for JTA, it could play a role in making the agency a more credible candidate when it applies for infrastructure funding from the Federal Transit Authority and other federal agencies.

JTA will pay WSP $1.21 million for the study, which would focus on four possible station locations: the northern terminus at the Prime Osbourne Convention Center; an ‘Avenues Walk’ location adjacent to Southside Boulevard and U.S. 1; a northern St. Johns County location near Race Track Road and U.S. 1; and the southern terminus on the outskirts of downtown St. Augustine at the intersection of U.S. 1 and King Street.

The authority owns the Avenues Walk Park-n-Ride facility along U.S. 1 as well as the Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center but not property adjacent to the two other proposed stations. It does not plan to purchase property for the commuter rail project, which would run on track owned by Florida East Coast Railway.

Federal dollars are paying for 80% of the cost of the commuter rail study and a similar one looking at transit-oriented development around the First Coast Flyer Green Line, the bus rapid transit connector between the JTA headquarters and the Armsdale Park-n-Ride facility located near Interstate 295 in North Jacksonville.

Bus rapid transit, or BRT, is a system in which buses use dedicated lanes and premium terminals and have fewer stopes, providing some of the benefits of rail without the expense.

In its application for federal funding, JTA identified the Green Line as ripe for transit-oriented development because the route operates in multiple opportunity zones and “impacts a historically underserved area in terms of infrastructure improvements.” 

Although the 10-mile-long Green Line opened in 2014, this is the first time JTA has looked at what development could take place along the $33.2 million project.

“What we are trying to do is encourage development in and around BRT nodes, similar to what you would do around a rail station,” Ford said.

JTA is negotiating with Renaissance Group to handle the $1.17 million Green Line study. The contracts with both WSP and Renaissance are slated to be signed this fall with the studies are scheduled to be completed in October 2022.

More information on transit-oriented development is also on the way. Ford said the agency should have a study on the potential for development around the Ultimate Urban Circulator project finalized by the end of September, providing context on transportation, residential housing and business opportunities along the proposed 10-mile network.

That study was funded by a $1 million grant from the FTA and conducted by WSP.

Ford said having studies in hand allows JTA to approach developers and encourage them to do projects along JTA’s routes.

“We can’t wait for the development community, in some cases, to understand the value of transportation infrastructure,” Ford said. “The USDOT is providing transit authorities that funding that allows us to front-load some of that planning work and make it enticing. A lot of the planning work that a developer would have to do on their own dime, we’re doing it.”

Image courtesy of Tim Wildsmith