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INVESTIGATES: Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s autonomous shuttle challenges

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Jacksonville Transportation Authority held an open house Monday on a multimillion-dollar downtown project, the Bay Street Innovation Corridor, in an effort to win back waning support and inform the public of the progress.

It’s the first time JTA has answered questions after refusing to do a sit-down interview with Action News Jax during our investigation into it. Investigator Emily Turner found it is way over budget and way past the deadline, and there are more misses ahead.

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JTA confirmed Monday it will be missing its original deadline for when the project was supposed to be substantially completed, putting future deadlines at risk.

There are also more promises that won’t be coming to fruition when it comes to the project itself.

JTA has finally purchased all 14 of the Ford E-Transit vans for its fleet, and we now know how its partner, Beep, plans to take the already street-legal vehicle and retrofit it to become semi-autonomous.

RELATED: JTA’s multimillion-dollar autonomous vehicle project is over budget and behind deadline

Beep Senior VP Eduardo Rosa wouldn’t go into how much each one costs but did say it takes a lot. There’s “the communication equipment,” he says, and the Autonomous Driving System (a kit that will be added to the vehicles post-production) will add “the sensors, Lidar, readers, and everything that goes on the vehicle.”

JTA said the first of those vehicles could be rolled out onto Bay Street as soon as January of next year, but without passengers, if it passes safety testing in time.

JTA also confirmed it will be missing yet another project deadline.

RELATED: Accountability changes at JTA

Kiet Dinh is the VP of Automation and Innovation for JTA. He said the timeline for substantial completion has been pushed back.

“That date was a forecast into that particular point in time,” Dinh said. “But the actual new substantial completion forecast, the date is March 31, 2025.”

That’s six months late, leaving JTA only two months to get the whole system up and running or it misses yet another deadline. The project hasn’t met a single one of its originally promised deadlines since the contract was inked in 2018.

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Now, it’s also falling short of the original promise of designated lanes. An engineer with project contractor Balfour Beatty said, “it will be a nice idea. We’d love to see that go forward, but right now, with the traffic things that are happening as far as flow needs, it’s not coming to fruition.”

That’s because it would be a traffic hazard. And those safety concerns, he said, are the same reason the number of shuttle stops had to be rolled back, to avoid backups on the Main Street Bridge.

“If we start delaying the flow of traffic,” he said, “we could cause a major hazard. So there are opportunities to make it better for people to move about, but we also have to make sure that we still keep it safe.”

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The other aspect that’s in jeopardy is the funding. The project was originally supposed to be a combination of federal, state, and local funding.

The money from the federal government disappears in September 2025. So whatever outstanding costs we have that haven’t already been approved and paid out by the feds by the end of September, taxpayers will be left to pay.

So far, the federal government has only reimbursed about $1.5 million of the more than $17 million JTA has spent, meaning 91% of the costs so far are shouldered by Jacksonville taxpayers. The whole price, at this point, is $65.5 million.

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