As part of the ongoing discussion on public transportation in Birmingham, members of the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority, community activists and journalists gathered at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on Thursday evening.
The overarching theme of the evening seemed to go in circles: The BJCTA needs more money to increase the number of people riding the buses, but that won’t happen unless more people utilize the system.
Right now the BJCTA operates on about a $30 million budget. Many on the board believe this to be about half of what is needed to run an optimal system in Birmingham.
The BJCTA has had a long, troubled history that has left riders longing for more transparency and accountability — not to mention better services — as made evident by members of the audience who voiced their disapproval of the current system.
“How long does it take to fix an air conditioner?” Cedric Hatcher asked during the discussion, referring to the situation that unfolded Thursday at the BJCTA’s temporary hub. On the hottest day of the year thus far, riders were left to swelter while waiting on their ride.
Frank L. Matthews, a community activist on the panel, offered his stance on the current state of the BJCTA, “while trying to remain politically correct,” he said in jest. “Mrs. [Barbara] Murdock has done a whole lot in terms of dealing with concerns and complaints. She’s addressed them head on. But my position is it’s still not adequate. You don’t have the population that wants to ride the bus.
“It was 108 degrees out today and you still had to pay to get on the bus. In Chicago and New York or any other big city, they let people ride for free [when it’s that hot],” Matthews said. “My concern is leadership within the bus system. If you don’t care nothing about it, who says you care about us?”
Murdock, the BJCTA’s interim executive director, said that the situation with the air conditioner would be fixed expeditiously and offered her rebuttal to the opinions (many of them critical) being expressed from both the dais and audience. “It’s hard for me to sit here and listen to the negativity when we are running the day-to-day operations,” Murdock said, seemingly irked by pointed criticism. “We are a fiscally sound system.
“With the current funding we have now, we’re simply babysitting… Our fleet is aging, so consequently we have more breakdowns. From a business standpoint we are running a sound system financially. We cover 9 percent of our income from our fare box. But we don’t want to raise fares unless we have optimal services,” Murdock said.
As it stands, the MAX ridership is 98 percent African-American, according to Murdock. There are 68 buses to serve the ridership — in spite of the mechanical problems that plague the aging fleet — where headways currently stand at about an hour long.
Matthews contends that the issue with transit is less about funding and more pointed toward civil rights. BCRI Vice President Ahmad Ward said it is no coincidence that the discussion is taking place on the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott.
“This is a civil rights issue. It’s not just everyone buys into it and it will work because like you said, if this were anywhere else, it would change,” Matthews said.
As several members of the BJCTA board mentioned, outlying municipalities have declined to buy into the system. Matthews and other members of the panel said this is because of the demographic that currently rides the buses.
A member of the audience asked if there have been studies done to see who actually rides the bus in Birmingham. Dr. Patrick Sellers, chair of the BJCTA board, said no, but believes companies would lend financial support if they knew their employees would utilize the system.
“This region has changed,” Sellers said. “We are a car-dependent population. Even the city’s landscape doesn’t provide for good public transit. We have more parking decks and on-street parking than any other place in the country.”
Because of this, Sellers said, “We push people to drive their car because, one, they have a place to park downtown and two, it’s affordable to park downtown.”
“And three, they can’t get a bus,” Weld publisher, Mark Kelly, chimed in from the dais.
While issues of funding and lackluster ridership dominating most of the discussion, BJCTA board member Adam Snyder said that the revolving door of executive directors has also contributed to some of the transit issues in Birmingham. There have been 10 executive directors at the BJCTA in the last 20 years, not counting Murdock.
Asked what the real barrier was standing in the way of having an optimal bus system, Snyder responded, “The Regional Planning Commission.”
Because of the In-Town Transit Partnership — an initiative of the RPC — Snyder explained, “They have driven us for 12 years to do it the way they want it done. It’s really just about routes and how we cover it. You would use the same number of buses we have now but just operate them differently. But that is not what RPC wants to do,” Snyder said.
Charles Ball, executive director of the RPC, who was not in attendance, declined to comment over the phone.
Despite the critical nature of many of the comments, the discussion remained relatively positive. As the BJCTA continues to bring parties together in order to secure more funding, Murdock said she is hoping to build a system that “everyone wants.” First they “must pull the system apart,” she said.
Snyder said in order to do that, the board would have to resist getting bogged down with “petty minutia” that has plagued the body in the past.
“We need dedicated funding and we need leadership,” Snyder said. “I don’t shirk my responsibility on the board. Barbara doesn’t shirk her responsibility as the interim executive director. But it goes beyond us. It goes to city leadership. It goes to county leadership. It goes to state leadership…The only way we can get more revenue is with better leadership.”