“We have to change the perception of public transportation. Riding the bus does not make you poor,” Andre Davis said, touching on an issue that was heavily highlighted at the Aug. 7 Wicked Problem discussion, sponsored by Weld and UAB School of Public Health’s Edge of Chaos.
As the director of Parking and Transportation Services at UAB, Davis knows that transporting people is difficult if people don’t want to get on the bus or make use of the public options in Birmingham.
“The perception is the inconvenience right now,” Butch Ferrell, a life-long passenger on Birmingham’s buses, said. “People stopped riding the bus when it became inconvenient to ride the bus.”
The topic of Thursday’s Wicked Problem discussion, which was held at the Edge of Chaos center, was on how to improve public transportation in Birmingham and how doing so can help alleviate some of the stress felt in impoverished neighborhoods throughout the city.
Birmingham resident John Wright Jr., who described himself as a “40-year transit advocate,” said he was “double-thrilled” to be a part of the panel discussion comprised of people he called “revolutionaries.”
Wright distributed two handouts at the meeting, both of which touched on public transportation statistics — one locally, the other nationally.
“In 2013, Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation, the highest in 57 years,” according to one of those handouts. “Since 1995 public transportation is up 37.2 percent, outpacing population growth, which is up 20.3 percent, and vehicle miles traveled, which is up 22.7 percent.”
In Birmingham, the city spent $10,647,002 on transit in 2014 according to Wright’s handout, which cites the Birmingham-Jefferson Transit Authority as its source. Wright’s research indicates that Fairfield spent $316,864; Vestavia spent $71,627; Hoover spent $63,959. This gap, Wright explained, should be a call for more cooperation regionally on the issues surrounding transit.
Birmingham City Councilor Kim Rafferty said she has already been working toward bringing together a regional mode of transportation — a rail line connecting Birmingham, Huntsville, Montgomery and Mobile.
“Birmingham is the transportation hub for the South,” Rafferty said. “We’re the crossroads on rail, we have an excellent airport with lots of potential. We are about to work on a port authority and start requesting federal funding for that, but the Department of Transportation expressly wants our full strategic plan for public transportation all of these points.”
Rafferty said that bringing these modes of transportation together will not only benefit Birmingham, but also the region as a whole.
“We’re talking about a multibillion dollar infusion into this area if this transportation plan moves forward,” Rafferty said, mentioning the job opportunities and economic developments that would follow a comprehensive regional transportation system.
On a more local level, proposed solutions for the transit system ranged from building more shelters for the bus stops to bringing back street level trolley cars.
Anne August, the executive director of the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority, says that she came to the realization that, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.
“In Philadelphia, where I grew up, they have what we call trackless trolleys, meaning they have tires like a bus but they have overhead rail lines and they operate in different areas. They are electric powered,” August said.
In order for Birmingham to reach its full potential, August explained, eventually the transit system will have to progress beyond just a bus-based system.
“I’ve been in transit for 34 years and I’m beginning to see a trend: where cities used to have rail lines and trolleys, they are starting to go back to that,” August said.
A member of the audience asked August how this progression might play out.
“It depends on the area and the culture of that area,” August pointed out. “In some cases you can start out with a bus system, then work your way up to a BRT, which is a bus rapid transit, meaning that you don’t need a rail but rather more of an express lane for the bus to operate on. Then you can go to light rail, which is above ground,” August said, although she did not mention if this progression would work in Birmingham specifically.
One of the challenges faced by Birmingham’s transit system is the Alabama Department of Transportation wanting to review all minor improvements that could be made, according to Charles Ball, executive director of the Birmingham Regional Planning Commission. Ball knows the impact that minor changes, such as an improved sidewalk, can have on a community.
“One of the problems right now,” Ball said, “ is that ALDOT still reviews smaller projects in-house, whereas other states basically contract out sidewalk projects, trails and things like that. It seems to make things go faster.”
Communication between municipalities and government agencies is another important aspect of solving the transportation problems that plague Birmingham, according to Rafferty. “The cities themselves do not talk,” she said.
When she took office in 2009 she called a meeting between all 39 of the mayors in Jefferson County, something that had never been done, Rafferty explained.
“There really needs to be a meeting of the minds between elected officials, because that hasn’t ever happened. But I was advised that as a city council member I shouldn’t be inviting mayors to a meeting — that is supposed to be the mayor’s job, so I had to back off that,” Rafferty said.
Still, Rafferty contends that if all the municipalities in Jefferson County can work together toward a common goal, such as improving mass transit in Birmingham, the state will supply more funding.
“I met with [U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.)] and he said if I can prove to him that everybody is on the same page, he will support pushing money back in here, including those big chunks of money that stupid people dropped by the wayside years back,” Rafferty said.
Despite having to back off the idea of bringing together the municipalities in Jefferson County for a “meeting of the minds,” Rafferty, along with the other panelists, stressed the importance of that kind of municipal cooperation.
Ball said that after visiting other cities throughout the country, he noticed how cooperation between city and state governments can have a substantial impact on infrastructure, especially in regards to transportation.
“My dream is that we take pride in everything that we touch,” Ball said. “The citizens out west seem to have a different mentality when it comes to anything related to infrastructure. Whether it’s a red state or a blue state, when you’re talking about roads or transit or whatever, they want the best of whatever is available. I believe that we can’t be competitive if we don’t do that.”