“We just need to move forward,” said Barbara Murdock. “This is a wonderful way to get that started.”
That emphatic declaration from Murdock, the interim executive director of the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority, came just prior to the beginning of an Oct. 26 “media availability” at which she and the officers of the BJCTA board — chairman Patrick Sellers, vice chair Patricia Henderson, and secretary/treasurer Bacarra Mauldin — made comments and answered questions about a $20 million federal grant Birmingham had been awarded earlier in the day. The funds will be spent on a slate of planned improvements in bus service and other capital needs of the transit system.
“This takes us to the next generation for transit in Birmingham and Jefferson County,” Murdock said in her formal remarks.
The centerpiece of the planned improvements is implementation of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which is designed to use dedicated traffic lanes and traffic signal optimization to deliver faster, more frequent service to more people in more of the city’s neighborhoods. But Murdock also highlighted other potential benefits about which she and the board members present were, in the phrase Sellers had used to open the discussion, “happy and excited.”
Specifically, Murdock said, the federal funding will help the BJCTA develop and implement several “superstops” where key bus lines intersect and purchase new, more fuel-efficient and passenger-friendly vehicles for both BRT and general use. She also said development of the BRT line — a 15-mile route that will touch 25 urban neighborhoods — will jumpstart transit-oriented development patterns that will make Birmingham more walkable and livable, particularly for lower-income residents.
“Where transit goes, community grows,” Bacarra Mauldin said. It was a purposeful paraphrase of the motto of the American Public Transportation Association, an industry membership and advocacy group to whose national board of directors Mauldin was named earlier this year. She said she was pleased to see initiatives that are being implemented successfully in other cities around the nation coming to Birmingham.
“Municipalities all over the country are facing the challenge of alleviating traffic and providing reliable mass transit for their citizens,” Mauldin said. “This grant will help make us able to build a better bus system and have a more walkable city.
“This is a great day for mass transit in Birmingham.”
“a numb feeling…”
Just how widely Mauldin’s sentiment is shared depends on who is doing the talking. While it is impossible not to characterize a $20 million injection into a perpetually cash-strapped agency as anything short of potentially transformational, the award comes at a time when many in the community are questioning the ability and inclination of the predominant power bloc on the board — Sellers, Henderson and Mauldin, plus longtime Bessemer board representative Johnnye Lassiter, who was not at the Oct. 26 media session — to deliver the improvements for which riders, BJCTA employees and local transit advocates have been calling for years.
Even with some of those improvements on the way, thanks to the timely “TIGER” grant from the federal Department of Transportation, many also are suspicious of the board’s motives. Thickening the atmosphere of distrust is the recent parting of ways between the BJCTA board and Ann August, who had been the system’s executive director since January 2013.
Highly respected in national transit industry circles — in March of this year, one national group honored her as one of 13 “Women Who Move the Nation” — and popular with employees, riders and advocates, as well as leaders in the suburban municipalities that participate in the BJCTA’s Metro Area Express system, August led marked improvements in service and operations. In the wake of her departure, some are quick to point out that the projects for which the TIGER grant was awarded were initiated by August, and to express irritation that some board members now want to claim undue credit for someone else’s work.
“What the grant shows is that under Ms. August, things were happening,” says J.O. Hill, a 30-year BJCTA employee who is president of both the local transit workers union and the agency’s Transit Citizens Advisory Board. “The grant came to be because of the part she played in it. I know she’s not going to get any credit for it now, but that’s the truth.”
As Hill sees it, August’s departure is the latest in an ongoing series of setbacks that have plagued the system for decades. The board had voted to part ways with August at a specially called emergency meeting on October 9 — two days after a story in Weld revealed August’s intention to leave the agency when her contract expired on Dec. 31 of this year. Tension between August and the four-member board faction stretched back at least to the summer of 2014, and came to a head in January of this year, when the board had appeared set to fire August, but instead replaced Lassiter with Sellers as board chair.
Whatever truce that produced — August’s primary complaint had been regarding interference by board members in the agency’s day-to-day operations — dissolved over the following several months. At a meeting held near the end of the month of August, the director had indicated her desire to renew her contract for one year, which she said would allow her to see several major projects to completion; she did ask for explicit agreement on establishing bounds for board members’ direct involvement in operations. The board never responded to her proposal.
Now, with the popular director gone, J.O. Hill describes morale among the BJCTA workforce as “pretty low.” He says he has been approached by fellow employees who are “bewildered” by the board’s letting August go, and “uncertain” about the future of their agency.
“For me personally, if you put on a scale of 100, I’d say my morale dropped from 90 to about 30 in a big hurry,” Hill says. “I can tell you that feeling is widely shared. Everybody who has come to me about it is trying to understand how this happened. We thought everything was going great, and then the bottom fell out. It leaves you with a numb feeling.
“We see some good things happening,” adds Hill. “You want to go into that in a mode and attitude that is positive. But when you know what happened to the person who was responsible for these good things, it’s not easy to have that kind of attitude. It feels like what we’ve seen so many times before, where things are moving in a good direction for a while, and then something happens that puts us right back to zero. That’s just been the history of the transit company.”
The dynamics of dysfunction
Regardless of anyone’s intentions, or of where the fault for the chronic insufficiency of mass transit in Birmingham, the problems are made worse by the political dynamics that underlie them. An apt illustration of this can be found in the way news of the TIGER grant rolled out.
The hastily called “media availability” at the BJCTA on Monday afternoon was not billed as an announcement, because the actual announcement had come roughly three hours earlier, at a press conference at Legion Field called by Birmingham Mayor William Bell’s office. There, the mayor said the grant would accelerate “our long-term plan for building a world-class transit system” in advance of the 2021 World Games, which Birmingham will host.
“Hopefully, this is the beginning of many more improvements that will benefit our citizens and our neighborhoods,” Bell said. But while welcoming the grant, Bell also pointed out that the system needs more dedicated funding.
“It is critical that we have more operating funds to help grow and expand the system,” said Bell. “That’s something that my staff and I are in touch with the state administration and our legislators about, as well as continuing to work with officials at the federal level.”
As the mayor hailed the collaborative effort between the city and the BJCTA, it was hard not to notice that he was surrounded by five of the nine members of the Birmingham City Council — Johnathan Austin, the council president, along with councilors Steven Hoyt, Kim Rafferty, Jay Roberson and Sheila Tyson — but only one member of the BJCTA board, Sellers. There has been ill feeling between Bell and the transit board since earlier this month, when the mayor sent the board a letter in which he expressed concerns that “several” unnamed board members were damaging communications between his office and the board.
A few days after the letter was sent — and after the board’s decision to cut ties with Ann August — Bell’s office provided Weld with a statement. In it, the mayor said he was “assessing” that decision, as well as the city council’s involvement in recent events at the BJCTA, “and the negative impact it will have on our federal efforts.”
Following the TIGER grant press conference on Monday, Bell expanded for the first time on the reason for the letter and his subsequent comments. He also offered his perspective on the mayor’s duties in relation to the operation of the BJCTA and the business of its board, which is appointed by the city council.
“All along,” Bell said, “my concern has been for the impact that the perception of discord in our transit system, or disputes among the leadership, would have on our ability to compete for and be awarded things like the TIGER grant we’ve announced today. Ms. August has been very instrumental in all of our efforts to work in conjunction with [the BJCTA], so I’m hopeful that the board will conduct a nationwide search to find someone else of that caliber.”
While stressing that his primary role is “to find resources” to support the transit system and its plans for future growth, Bell also asserted that as mayor, he has responsibilities that go beyond that.
“The mayor is the administrative head of the city,” said Bell. “I have to be interested in all things that impact our city, both positively and negatively. I am dedicated to making sure that we have a first-class transit system that is run with integrity and in accordance with sound planning principles.”
Wanted: A steady hand
Along with many BJCTA employees, longtime transit advocates are dismayed at Ann August’s departure and distrustful of the current balance of power on the board. They blame this board for perpetuating the bus system’s history of underachievement in meeting the needs of riders — for knowing the problems that have persisted for years, and failing to do anything to solve them.
“I have watched five people die who have been transit advocates that I started with many years ago, and who started advocating long before I did,” says Marva Douglas, 76, a Midfield resident who has been a longtime proponent of better transit, and has ridden the bus regularly since 2003. “Like me, all of them have been hopeful that we would get better transit in their lifetimes. But it has not happened. They never got to see that.”
Douglas flatly calls the leadership of the BJCTA board “hard-hearted people” who allowed political considerations and the “need to accumulate power” to cause them to chase away a world-class transit director. She says August’s “dismissal” is a blow to the people who need an improved transit system most: the riders.
“People had been so hopeful since Ann came on board,” Douglas says. “She was making it happen, knitting the pieces together. It’s vexing when I think that she’s gone because of the people on that board. They have no understanding of the ache that goes with not having good transit for people who are dependent on it. That hurts, and all of this turmoil and upheaval that they’re causing hurts. We can’t just keep changing people. We need a steady hand at the wheel.”
Butch Ferrell, 62, has been dependent on Birmingham buses all of his life, due to his epilepsy. He has been well known as a transit advocate since the late 1990s, and said that during August’s tenure, he had come to “hope that things were going to turn in our direction.” Ferrell says that the people the system is supposed to be there to serve have been robbed of hope “so many times that they’re tired of even trying.”
“Every time progress is being made, there comes a point where it just implodes,” says Ferrell. “The people that get hurt are the people a good system helps most, and that’s the bus riders. It’s to a point where you can’t get them to act in their own behalf. It’s like their souls have been robbed of any hope that there can be a positive change.”
Ready to move forward?
To their credit, the leadership of the BJCTA board has heard the criticism that has come their way in recent months — at least to the extent of recognizing that they have a serious public relations problem. Over the past few weeks, Sellers, Henderson and Mauldin have undertaken a tour of local radio stations with predominantly black audiences, looking to turn the notion of a contentious board and a system broken beyond repair into one of an agency with a board and executive staff capable of building a system for the future.
Undeniably, the TIGER grant is a step in that direction. But whether the board is truly looking beyond the immediate PR problem and is committed to achieving the level of cohesion and collaboration it will take to get there will become apparent only in time — and with each critical decision it makes with regard to issues ranging from the operation and growth of the system to relations with employees to finding a new executive director.
“We’re looking at the future,” board chair Sellers insisted at the board’s Monday media event. Pointing out that the investment of public funds in transportation generates three to four dollars in return for every dollar spent, he said that the improvements that are coming will increase ridership, aid operational efficiency and create opportunities for new residential and commercial development — all of which will entice the other municipalities that are currently part of the system to expand their services, and encourage additional funding partners to opt in.
“We’re going to keep looking for ways to operate more effectively and efficiently,” Sellers said. “Over the next two years, you’re going to see vast improvements on route optimization, so we’ll be going where people are going, and where communities are growing. And as we grow, other people are going to want to get on board.
“We’re ready to move forward.”