Idea is in response to “mountain of congestion” coming from population growth, Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO says
Creating a commuter rail connection from St. Augustine to Jacksonville could help the region deal with traffic congestion from population growth, and officials are in early talks about the project.
It’s one of many strategies discussed or planned to deal with ongoing growth in St. Johns County, which reported a nearly 40% population increase from 2010 to 2019.
Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO Nat Ford said at a St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce event last week that he has been in talks with city of St. Augustine leaders and others about creating the commuter rail connection.
St. Johns County: FDOT plans railroad, interchange and drainage upgrades
“It’s very conceptual at this point, just talking to see if there’s even interest,” Ford said in an interview with The Record after the event. “And what we’ve received is there’s interest because we know we have this mountain of congestion that’s coming our way based on just sheer fact of the population growth in St. Johns County and the number of individuals who are actually commuting from St. Johns County to Jacksonville for work opportunities.”
With gas tax revenue, Jacksonville officials plan to put the idea through preliminary design, which would provide estimates for construction cost and other details, Ford said.
For boarding points for the commuter rail, officials are looking at the St. Johns County government center, off U.S. 1 North and San Sebastian View, and other connections such as The Avenues and the Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center, Ford said.
An early estimate is the trip would take about 44 minutes end to end, he said. In some cases, existing railroad could be shared. In other cases, JTA may need its own track.
“This is all in response to something that we know is going to occur, which is congestion on I-95 due to the population growth over the next couple of decades,” Ford said.
The topic came up during this month’s Economic Development Council Quarterly Breakfast with the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce at the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort and Spa conference center in Ponte Vedra Beach. The topic was “The Role of Transportation in Local and Regional Economic Development.”
The panel of speakers featured Ford, Phong Nguyen, transportation development division director for St. Johns County; and Greg Evans, secretary for District Two of Florida Department of Transportation, which includes St. Johns, Duval and more than a dozen other counties.
The speakers discussed future transportation needs, upcoming projects, new technology and addressing growth, among other topics.
JTA parked an autonomous vehicle outside of the conference center so attendees could take a look. The organization is working on a project to create an autonomous transportation system in downtown Jacksonville.
City of St. Augustine officials have also discussed the possibility of using autonomous vehicles downtown.
Road projects planned in St. Johns County
Major road projects are planned in St. Johns County in the coming years, including the First Coast Expressway, which will eventually stretch about 46 miles across parts of Duval, Clay and St. Johns counties, according to the Florida Department of Transportation. Drivers will pay tolls electronically along the way without stopping.
The final section of the expressway, which is expected to be built in less than 10 years, will include a new bridge south of the existing Shands Bridge and a new road “from east of the County Road 16A Spur to I-95 in St. Johns County,” according to FDOT.
When it comes to complaints about traffic congestion in town, the intersection of State Road 312 and U.S. 1 is a frequent target, and officials are looking into ways to improve that area, Nguyen said.
“Basically everything that we have tried or … we have improved is maxed,” he said.
One idea is to create an overpass, he said.
“That’s going to be, probably, years out … It’s just a conversation, but we are practically trying to work on that,” he said.
Part of keeping up with growth is conducting traffic counts, which are done annually to know how much use roads are getting, Nguyen said.
In the past few years, St. Johns County has installed more than 20 traffic signals countywide, and the county is looking at expanding roads that are already too crowded, he said.
The county has road widening projects in the works, including on State Road A1A in Ponte Vedra Beach to ease chokepoints around Marsh Landing and Mickler Beach area, Nguyen said.
“We are fortunate … that we have only a handful of roads that are congested,” he said, adding that the county is trying to provide infrastructure ahead of growth.
Still, St. Johns County is reacting to a “huge” jump in population in recent years, Nguyen said.
The county grew from 190,039 in April 2010 to 264,672 in July 2019, according to a U.S. Census Bureau estimate.