The city of Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority and Groundwork Jacksonville celebrated their collaboration Thursday on the Emerald Trail project in the shadows of the Cummer Museum of Arts & Gardens.
The three entities signed a Memorandum of Understanding last month that outlines the responsibilities for the 30 miles of parks and pathways that will surround Jacksonville’s Urban Core.
When City Council doubled Jacksonville’s gas tax in 2021, it allocated $132 million of those revenues to develop the project, which will connect 14 neighborhoods, 16 schools and 21 parks.
Groundwork Jacksonville CEO Kay Ehas said the first portion of the trail, the LaVilla Link, should be completed by January.
“We’ve learned from other trail systems throughout the country what an incredible impact trails have on communities,” Ehas said. “We expect nothing less from the Emerald Trail. … It will create a vibrant, walkable Urban Core, which is key to attracting young professionals … who are in high demand and a priority for companies looking to relocate.”
However, even before the trail’s initial groundbreaking in LaVilla in 2021, Ehas was concerned the gas tax funding would not cover the totality of the trail project because of rising construction costs.
The agreement between Groundwork, JTA and the city states the authority will take the lead in applying for federal dollars to augment the local funding and private donations.
JTA CEO Nathaniel Ford Sr. touted that the organization has won more than $200 million in federal grant funding over the past six years.
“We saw, even going back to the pandemic, the gaps in terms of transportation for certain members of our community,” Ford said. “This trail will help with connectivity, mobility, economic vitality (and) health care. So, why wouldn’t the JTA be a part of that?”
If the funding is in place, Ford said, the Emerald Trail will be complete by 2030. He anticipates it will also include Wi-Fi access along the length of the trail. But, the project needs federal dollars to make that a reality.
This fall, JTA leaders will head to Washington to try to win grants through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Neighborhood Access & Equity Program Grant.
The grant program was created when President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 in August of last year.
The program will allocate $3.2 billion to improve walkability, safety and affordable transportation access. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the most a project can receive through the Neighborhood Access & Equity program is 80% of its cost.
However, portions of the Emerald Trail project may be eligible for 100% of costs because it improves transportation options in a “disadvantaged or underserved community.”
Groundwork’s relationship with the city began in 2019 during former Mayor Lenny Curry’s administration. Ehas said 40% of the project has been designed, under construction or complete.
Mayor Donna Deegan, an avid walker and jogger herself, says the trail will highlight the city’s natural beauty.
“To have people outside breathing and moving, I think that’s great for the health of our city and really great to bring us all together. It’s going to be a great unifying force.”