2021 emails show FDOT concerns over Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s autonomous vehicle plan

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Action News Jax has uncovered damning emails about the viability of a major multimillion-dollar transportation project. They show the state had significant concerns about the Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s plan to bring autonomous vehicles downtown.

Those concerns date back at least as far as three years ago. They raise questions about the viability of the program, the cost, the scope, and the way it was bid out. They also show JTA continued forward with the project anyway.


The project is called the Ultimate Urban Circulator, or U2C, and it’s the pet project of JTA CEO Nat Ford. On paper, the plan is to bring autonomous vehicles into downtown, to Bay Street first, and then eventually convert the Skyway into an elevated roadway for them. The first portion, known as the Bay Street Innovation Corridor, was set to be completed by May of next year and was originally slated to cost $44 million. But the budget has ballooned and the progress painfully slow, putting the whole thing in jeopardy of even happening at all.

Now, according to emails, we know the Florida Department of Transportation saw those pitfalls coming and tried to get JTA to change course. They also show JTA chose not to listen and moved forward anyway.

Action News Jax requested correspondence between JTA and the project point person with the state. The back and forth paints a very clear picture about major concerns.

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In an email from December of 2021, the state lays out four key concerns: low ridership, high cost, a lack of competitive bidding, and overall viability of the operation. The emails show, at best, the 3.2-mile loop will carry 250 to 300 riders a day. The newest cost estimate jumped to $65.5 million. That breaks down to more than $20 million in taxpayer dollars ($20,468,750/mile) per mile constructed.

And that’s just the first phase. The estimated $400+ million overall project has three. The emails go on to say there is no official price tag on the overall design. FDOT expressed concerns about spending state money without a set bid price or competitive bidding process. Instead, JTA awarded the sole source contract to one company without knowing how much the project would cost, only setting a “do not exceed” price ceiling. That doesn’t leave a lot of incentive for competitive pricing, FDOT argued.

The emails also show concerns about the project operating autonomously, the whole point of the project. It said JTA knew the vehicles wouldn’t operate autonomously the first year and questioned the price of the vehicle being “extremely high but not capable of operating autonomously.” It also questions whether they’ll be able to operate autonomously at all, even eventually, because “urban core capable, mixed flow autonomous vehicles has lagged projections for availability.”

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Time has proven FDOT right. Two years after these emails, Action News Jax was at the December JTA board meeting, where it announced a makeshift plan to put autonomous vehicles on the road.

Instead of an autonomous bus, “it will actually be a customized van that will serve our needs on the corridor,” said Senior Vice President and Chief Infrastructure & Development Officer Greer Gillis, confirming it will be a regular van with a kit on it that will be autonomous, at least “until we are able to get something Made America compliant and get it on the corridor,” she said.

FDOT wanted JTA to scale back the project, lower the cost and put the work out for a competitive bid. Instead, Gillis’s responses to those requests show JTA did none of that. Instead, she says the state won’t have to worry about the extra cost, that will fall to the local taxpayer, saying it “will be overseen and require approval by the JTA board of directors, who are appointed by the Mayor and Governor.”

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Last year, that board approved an additional $20 million for the project. Action News Jax has reached out to the offices of Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for their thoughts on the project. Deegan has made her support of the project and Ford very clear, calling him a “visionary” in December. Deegan’s office shared the following statement with Action News Jax:

“We aren’t aware of those specific concerns. Based on the facts that have been presented to us, we have confidence in Nat Ford, the JTA board, and this project.”

DeSantis’ office has yet to respond to a single request for comment about JTA since our first request in November.

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Action News Jax has reached out to FDOT received the following statement:

“The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) works collaboratively with local governments, transit agencies and other entities to develop transportation projects that meet the needs and vision of each community. FDOT officials routinely offer insight and perspective on community-initiated projects that request state funding; however, the local agency is ultimately responsible for decision making. FDOT has committed $13 million in funds to the $400 million project, with $7 million committed to improvements to the current bus fleet, which is something FDOT routinely funds. The remaining $6 million represents approximately 1.25% of the total funding of the project, however, FDOT has not yet paid JTA for any work associated with this agreement.

“It is FDOT’s understanding that approximately $247 million for this project would come from the local gas tax that was approved by the Jacksonville City Council in May 2021.”

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