Promises Fulfilled

Jan. 3, 2023
The Orange Line improves mobility in Jacksonville

By Suze Parker, Contributing Author

For over a decade, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) envisioned a bus rapid transit (BRT) system that would create seamless mobility solutions for all of its northeast Florida customers.

Last fall, the opening of the Orange Line, the fourth and final line in the agency’s 58-mile First Coast Flyer BRT network, fulfilled that vision.

The Orange Line cost $33 million. The project is part of a $138 million BRT program that was launched in 2014. The line links JTA’s system to Clay County, the Jacksonville region’s southernmost county. According to the latest U.S. Census data, the area has the ninth-highest population growth rate in the nation.

JTA already operated fixed-ride transportation options for Clay County commuters. Because demographics showed that growing numbers of customers and potential customers were traveling from Clay County into the downtown Jacksonville core, JTA recognized the need for an additional option. The Orange Line represented that third solution, allowing Clay County customers to catch busses into Jacksonville at 10- or 15-minute intervals.

“The Orange Line is critical not only because it represented the completion of JTA’s entire bus rapid transit system, but specifically because of the linkage to Clay County,” said Greer Johnson Gillis, JTA senior vice president of systems development and capital program. “It made good on our promise to the community to solidify the First Coast Flyer system’s dual-county connection.”

Technology in the lead

The Orange Line’s infrastructure, designed by HNTB, leveraged technology to provide an exceptional user experience, including:

  • Bus rapid transit stations with premium amenities. HNTB project manager John Fowler describes the First Coast Flyer Orange Line’s 21 BRT stations as “bus stops on steroids.” Besides the shelters and benches that are standard, the stations also provide secure bicycle storage racks, smart trash cans that enable recycling, and lighting designed to meet federal safety standards. The stations also comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Interactive totems connected to JTA’s communications system improve travel reliability by displaying the expected real-time arrival of the next bus and the travel time to each successive stop on the route.
  • Transit signal priority. The system reduces transit rider delays by extending green lights when a bus nears an intersection.
  • Queue jump lanes. BRT lines operate on existing Florida Department of Transportation and Jacksonville roadways, rather than on dedicated JTA lanes. To keep busses from getting tied up in the lanes they share with other vehicles, the Orange Line project’s second and final phase will build out dedicated queue jump lanes at the corridor’s three most-congested intersections.

“JTA is a leader nationally for technology and innovation,” Fowler said. “They’re pushing the envelope to improve transit ridership and overall quality of life in Jacksonville.”

Collaborating to meet challenges

Installing the transit signal priority equipment into the controllers and testing them required coordination between FDOT and Jacksonville, which owns the signals and controllers.

“The city and state were concerned that transit signal priority use would deteriorate intersection performance,” Gillis said. “JTA worked closely with FDOT and the city to ensure this technology would not create a detrimental impact to the intersections’ operating functionality.”

On JTA’s behalf, HNTB conducted both a comprehensive traffic study before transit signal priority installation and a second study after the system had been operating for several weeks.

“Results indicated that more vehicles were moving through the intersections by means of the BRT lanes and the transit signal priority system,” Gillis said. “Those results helped create a broader understanding of the value of public transportation, proving that the transit signal priority system was a win-win.”

The Orange Line project also included a complete rebuild of the traffic signal at State Road 21 (Blanding Boulevard) and Townsend Road, which required significant utility coordination efforts. The area contained electric and fiber optic lines and water, sewer, and gas main lines, some buried up to 13 feet underground. Synchronizing timing and location of utility moves to identify the final traffic signal pole position required months-long cooperative work with numerous utility owners.

Delivering mobility for all

Jacksonville is, by area, the largest city in the lower 48 U.S. states. Its population and work centers cover a wide geography, challenging JTA to provide effective transit solutions for people with disparate travel origins and destinations.

The Orange Line advances JTA’s mission – to provide accessible transportation options and enhanced mobility for all northeast Florida users – by delivering enhanced travel time reliability and new opportunities to underserved communities along the route. The project was supported by a $90 million Federal Transit Administration grant, along with FDOT’s $24 million state match to JTA’s local investment.

“Many communities the Orange Line serves are not traditionally those that would receive transportation improvement funding,” Gillis said. “The Federal Transit Administration and state dollars invested in this project are connecting these communities to places of employment, as well as job and educational opportunities that weren’t available without this reliable transportation link. The Orange Line is making an impact that materially improves people’s lives.” R&B

Suze Parker is a public relations consultant and writer who frequently writes about roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects.        

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