Anne H. Oman
May 21, 2015 8:42 p.m.
“Nassau won’t always be little,” said County Planning Director Peter King. “Houses are being built. Projects are planned. All those people will need to go to Jacksonville to work, or to the beach. Transportation has to be part of the package.”
Mr. King was kicking off a public workshop Wednesday night at the Betty P. Cook campus of Florida State College at Jacksonville. The purpose of the meeting was to get feedback on an in-progress study of possible bus transit routes in the county. The $100,000 study, funded by the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization, is being conducted by ETM (England-Thims & Miller), a Jacksonville consulting firm, and is due to be completed this summer.
April Bacchus of ETM said the goal is to “enhance economic development and quality of life, a starting point for us.” She added that her group conducted an online survey and obtained 574 responses. Eighty percent of the respondents said that public transportation was important to them. Sixty-six percent said they needed transportation within the county, while the remaining third said they needed transportation to Duval County.
Ms. Bacchus showed a color-coded map showing the existing public transit routes run by Nassau Transit, an arm of the Council on Aging (Click here for previous article”Nassau Transit – Taking People where they need to go”), and several additional maps showing other possible routes. One would link Hilliard and Callahan with the JTA system in Jacksonville. Another would link Fernandina Beach with downtown Jacksonville. Others would serve downtown Fernandina and the beach area and provide access to employers such as the Ritz-Carlton and the hotels on Sadler Road.
Although the maps presented do not show routes that would transport people to Rayonier or Rock Tenn, Ms. Bacchus said in a phone interview that such transportation could be worked out after talks with employers as some of the routes pass within a half mile of these facilities.
Several attendees urged the planners to focus more on east-west transportation.
Don’t forget the west side of the county,” said Angie McClellan, who is the Nassau County schools liaison with homeless students, who number about 500.
“I question whether the biggest need is on the island,” she said. “When people are out in Hilliard and Callahan, it’s because they have to live there – they can’t afford the rent on the island or even in Yulee. I’m also concerned about the time period – what about people doing night-time shifts at McDonald’s? As you are coming up with plans, please keep these things in mind.”
Darrell Heun, a coordinator at Gracie’s Kitchen in Yulee, which served more than 16,000 meals last year, also stressed the need for transportation on the county’s west side and for people who work odd hours.
“We serve meals to the hungry – that’s a population not well served,” he said. “Many people have no car. We did a survey and found that many people walk six or seven miles to get here. There’s a woman who comes on a bike and gets six meals to go, for her children. Another of our customers works at Dick’s Wings, either the night shift or the day shift. He has no way to get there, so some of us drive him.”
Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel, of the county health department, also stressed that “East-West connectivity is important for health and social services.”
In a phone interview after the meeting, Ms. Bacchus said that “all options provide transport for east to west.”
“We are not neglecting the west side,” she emphasized, explaining that a transportation study must consider population density and employment density, and that both population and employment are concentrated on the east side of the county.
Karen Schexnayder of the Nassau Economic Development Board expressed concern about how students without cars can get to the FSCJ campus in Yulee.
“Part of our mission is to equip residents with educational tools,” she explained. “This is a commuter campus – so many students have difficulty getting to class.”
Michael Hays, Transportation Director of the Council on Aging, which runs Nassau Transit, said he was in discussions with college officials and planned to initiate service to the campus – and to the nearby county courthouse – in the fall. Nassau Transit busses on the regular run between Yulee and Callahan pass the entrance to the campus and courthouse complexes on SR 200 but do not normally enter the complex. But they would do so if requested by a passenger, Mr. Hays said in a phone interview.
Another attendee suggested that commuter rail would be a better solution than busses, which could add to the congestion on the roads.
Ms. Bacchus parried that “bus transportation starts with people who really need it, but then it attracts ‘choice riders.’
“If these riders leave their cars at home and take the bus, it will help alleviate congestion,” she said. “There will be one vehicle on the road instead of ten.”
The public comment period will extend until May 29. County residents who want to make suggestions about where routes should go and where busses should stop may send comments to April Bacchus at ETM by email (BacchusA@etminc.com) or fax (904-646-94850).
After the comment period closes, the public input will be summarized and made available on the county website. When the study is completed this summer, it will include recommendations on specific routes, along with cost estimates and potential funding sources.
Editor’s Note: Anne H. Oman relocated to Fernandina Beach from Washington, D.C. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Washington Times, Family Circle and other publications. We thank Anne for her contributions to the Fernandina Observer.