Florida Times-Union Guest Editorial - The next time you cross the Acosta Bridge, sing a chorus of Happy Birthday. The city’s first vehicular bridge turns 100 this year. It opened in 1921 as the St. Johns River Bridge. Later it was named for City Councilman Elmo Acosta, who convinced the city to support a $950,000 bond issue paid for with bridge tolls.

Like the Main Street bridge, it had a vertical lift that was raised to accommodate passing ships. That, of course, went away in 1994 when the original span was replaced with the modern design we use today that is high enough for ships but also accommodates pedestrians, cyclists and the Skyway.

Before the Acosta, people used boats to cross the St. Johns River. The convenience of driving or walking over the bridge was revolutionary, and it caused an economic boom in the neighborhoods on either side of the river.

Jacksonville is undergoing another transportation revolution that will be even more radical.

The combustion engine is going away, being replace with electric batteries and to a lesser extent hydrogen cells. Plug-in hybrids have been around for years, and Tesla has dominated the brave new world of electric vehicles. But not for long.

General Motors recently announced that its entire line of vehicles from the Chevy Bolt to the Hummer is going electric by 2035. Ford will have electric versions of its vehicles as well, including the F-150 Truck and the Mustang.

Every automaker you can name, and a bunch you’ve never heard of, will be bringing electric vehicles to the market in the next five years. The gas station will be replaced with the electric charging station. But many people will charge their vehicles at home, and download the extra electricity to their house.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy just released its first electrification scorecard for states. Not surprisingly, California is No. 1. Florida ranks 22.

But several projects in Jacksonville will help Florida improve its rating.

JTA has been shifting away from diesel-powered buses to compressed natural gas, which is environmentally friendlier. But electric buses are even better.

Last week the Jacksonville Transportation Authority announced the purchase of two zero-emission battery-powered electric GILLIG buses – the city’s first.

JTA CEO Nat Ford called it a major milestone toward the agency’s sustainability goals.

But the real transportation revolution in Jacksonville is happening with the Ultimate Urban Circulator (U2C), an autonomous vehicle network to connect Downtown and adjacent neighborhoods.

This is a big deal. It will be the first autonomous vehicle transit network in the United States.

Autonomous vehicles (AV) are driverless, though some have human supervision, and use an array of sensors and cameras to collect and analyze data about their surroundings. Researchers are working to teach the vehicles to “think” and “see” like humans, so that they can safely navigate streets under a variety of conditions.

They are already being used in controlled environments like campuses, where they can move from Point A to Point B. But eventually they be used in many other ways. Robotaxis are being tested in San Francisco and before long they might be used to deliver pizza.

In Jacksonville, AVs will replace the Skyway cars and will be able to move on the track and the road, many them very flexible.

The Ultimate Urban Circulator will be launched on the Bay Street Innovation Corridor, which runs three miles on Bay Street from Hogan Street to the Sports Complex. Requests for proposals went out last month, so we could see things happening before the end of the year.

Phase II, called the Autonomous Avenue, will use the track from Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center at LaVilla to the Jefferson Skyway Station.

Other phases will expand the system to San Marco, Riverside and Springfield.      

JTA, which already has three autonomous vehicles (AV) in its fleet, has been testing autonomous vehicles since 2017. It is currently testing its seventh vehicle, the Olli 2.0, which is not only autonomous, it’s a 3D-printed vehicle.

The vehicles are being tested at the Commercial Driver’s License test track at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

JTA also is working with the college to develop an AV curriculum for workforce training.

Meanwhile, JTA and the city are working on lower-tech transportation options. The goal is to provide people with many ways to travel around the city: car, bus, AV, bicycle, scooter and on foot.

Those projects have been underway since 2016 and include the bike lane on Hendricks Avenue and the road diet on Riverplace Boulevard. They also include new crosswalks, intersections and bus stops.

Park Street in Riverside will be going on a road diet this year, and bike lanes will be installed downtown.

It’s all part of a global transportation revolution that will give us many more options about how to travel while making less of an impact on our environment.

And Jacksonville is on the frontlines of the revolution thanks to JTA and the leadership of Nat Ford.