The Skyway is that elevated people mover that snakes through Downtown Jacksonville and has, since opening in 1989, ironically failed to move many people. Perhaps it was the limited footprint of the system that hampered rider participation. Or simply the fact that humans love to drive their cars. Regardless, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) has a futuristic plan in place to transform the antiquated Skyway into the Ultimate Urban Connector or the U²C.

According the U²C website (which, it should be noted, looks like it was designed by NASA), formal recommendations were presented to the JTA Skyway Committee and JTA Board of Directors to consider in December 2015. Resolution 2015-30, which was adopted, supports the development of a Skyway Modernization Program.

The current Skyway is a monorail system of automated train cars in a closed circuit – the local town fair compared to the U²C’s Disney’s Tomorrowland. The U²C will be an elevated roadway for compact driverless busses that will merge with street traffic at specific on and off-ramps. The new map will reach out a bit farther than the current bookends of the Skyway, reaching the Stadium Complex to the east, Riverside to the south and farther into San Marco across the St. Johns River.

JTA plans to do all of this without adding an elevated track, relying instead on the robo-buses transitioning smoothly into regular traffic at the specific points in the system. JTA’s transformation and use of the existing elevated tracks allows the agency to further delay the repayment of federal and state funds used to create the original Skyway. Along with that perk, JTA also hopes to get out in front of the upcoming tsunami of driverless vehicles expected to take over the streets in the very near future.

Skeptics would argue that we’ve been here before with the skyway. The system was all but outdated upon installation and plans to modernize have surfaced just about every half decade since the skyway was finished nearly 30 years ago. But this time around there’s a bit of inertia pushing the skyway’s future forward. In 2017 JTA broke ground on a 10,000 square foot state-of-the-art bus terminal, which, in subsequent phases will connect to the revamped U²C system. They began testing 12-passenger automated cars in late 2017.

“In January 2017, we unveiled a vision for the future of Jacksonville’s Skyway that seeks to modernize and expand it by converting the system to an autonomous transit network,” said JTA Public Relations Manager Leigh Ann Rassler. “The U²C will triple the size of the current monorail and have the capacity to serve three times the number of customers.”

A rendering of a driverless vehicle at the proposed Brooklyn Station hub.

Considering modern realities and limitations, JTA’s plan is ambitious.

“Public transportation is built to serve two types of customers,” says Bill Delaney, co-owner of The Jaxson, a multimedia project dedicated to urbanism and culture on Florida’s First Coast. “You have choice-riders and transit-dependent-riders; the former electing to ride public transportation on any given day and the latter needing public transportation to live and get around. It is imperative that any public transportation system reach where people live.”

Historically, city centers were the hub of social, retail and government activity, which is why most central stations of most public transportation systems are in the core of cities, according to Delaney. As Jacksonville’s businesses opted for fringe and suburban existence, it brought about new challenges for JTA and its goal of helping move Jacksons around.

“JTA deserves credit for trying to get out in front of the automated vehicle technology,” Delaney says, adding that funding and timely implementation are still undefined.

Automated vehicle technology is only now starting to catch up to the fanciful dreams of the developers. Every major car manufacturer is actively pouring capital into automated vehicle technology. And there have been bumps in the road, to put it mildly.

In March, an automated Tesla vehicle was involved in a car crash on a California Highway in which the driver (who was in the car, which was on autopilot) lost his life. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states have introduced or enacted legislation regulating automated vehicles, with the federal government’s National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration releasing new guidelines for Automated Driving Systems in 2017.

JTA began testing autonomous vehicles earlier this year.

JTA continues to run tests on their automated busses at designated test centers in Florida. They’ve yet to settle on which vehicle will be running across the elevated track, but the French-made EZ10 vehicle as a strong choice. JTA is showing off the possible candidate for flagship vehicles at several stationary meet and greets across the city; an opportunity for anyone in the community to go sit inside one of the vehicles and provide feedback.

With questions of funding, functionality, service area, and implementation timeliness still unanswered, the future for the U²C looks uncertain. Shaking a Magic 8-ball might only provide a “Reply hazy, try again” or “Cannot predict now.” For its part, JTA is all in and willing to gamble, again, on an elevated future.