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Initiatives working to make Northeast Florida's transportation ‘smart’

By Mike Mendenhall, Jacksonville Daily Record & Observer

Advances in Northeast Florida’s effort to become a “smart region” was the focus Tuesday for JAXUSA Partnership members at the JAX Chamber group’s quarterly meeting.

Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO Nat Ford; North Florida Transportation Planning Organization Executive Director Jeff Sheffield; and JEA Managing Director and CEO Aaron Zahn participated in a panel discussion at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront hotel, moderated by engineering services company RS&H Vice President Morgan County.

“We’ve all become familiar with smart technology. Whether it be a smartphone, smart TV, smart lightbulbs. Our entire homes can now be considered smart,” County said. “But how does that scale up when you’re talking about entire transportation networks — cities, regions, entire states?”

 The three CEOs discussed challenges for implementing and adopting smart technology in Northeast Florida’s transportation sector. Cybersecurity and attracting a skilled workforce were top issues, the panel said, as well as shortening planning cycles in the public sector that can slow the pace of integration.

The panel discussed ongoing projects that are advancing their shared goal of making Jacksonville and North Florida a smart region.

Sheffield said that TPO’s “Smart North Florida” initiative is allowing a public parking management program in St. Augustine to collect payments via smartphone apps to improve efficiency for drivers and the city.

Data-sharing with the city of St. Augustine will allow the program to expand eventually to a larger area like Jacksonville, he said.

The TPO official also highlighted the Regional Open Data Exchange that went live in June, which allows North Florida government agencies and companies to share information like pedestrian and vehicle flow rates using GIS mapping. 

“That is the first example of the public sector leveraging local startups and software developers in our community to develop the cloud and data model for that data exchange to live, and now a business model they can take elsewhere … while living in our community,” Sheffield said. 

Although JEA is not directly involved in transportation, Zahn said employees at the public energy and water utility designed augmented operational intelligence software to track water and sewer flows to limit the number of overflows in storm conditions that can affect transportation infrastructure.

Ford talked about JTA’s efforts to create the first autonomous vehicle transit network in the United States as part of its work on Downtown Jacksonville’s Bay Street Innovation Corridor. 

JTA’s autonomous vehicle test track has supported four driverless vehicles, which affects the authority’s plan to retrofit the Downtown Skyway monorail system into an elevated roadway for autonomous public transit, he said.

Through work on its Bay Street test track, Ford said JTA is developing minimum specifications for autonomous vehicles and is releasing those to manufacturers and the U.S. and Florida Departments of Transportation. This “Golden 20,” Ford said, will position JTA as an early adopter of autonomous vehicle technology.

“We have clearly identified specifications and guidelines, so to speak, of what a public transportation-type vehicle needs to have to be introduced in terms of operations on our streets,” Ford said.