Last week, the Birmingham City Council selected Adam Snyder as the newest member of the Birmingham-Jefferson Transit Authority. Snyder, 35, is the executive director of Conservation Alabama, a Birmingham-based nonprofit that lobbies the Alabama Legislature on environmental policy issues.
Interviewed shortly after his appointment, Snyder told Weld that he is “excited and hopeful” about joining the board of what has long been an underfunded and beleaguered system, and at the prospect of working with new executive director Ann Dawson-August, who comes to Birmingham from the Santee Wateree Regional Transportation Authority in South Carolina. He also offered the following answers to questions about his expectations as a new board member.
Weld: Mass transit has been maybe the single most intractable problem in the Birmingham region for a long time. Is there any cause for optimism? What’s your outlook as you join the board?
Snyder: I think there are good opportunities for change. We have a new director who is dynamic and energized. The board has been through a strategic planning process and a lot of internal development over the past year. So my impression is that the attitude is changing in terms of some of the possibilities we have for improving the system. As a new member, I’m going to be looking to learn as much as I can as fast as I can and how I can be a positive player.
Weld: What is the biggest immediate challenge you see?
Snyder: For any board, whether you’re talking about a nonprofit, a corporate board or a public board like the BJCTA, the key concern is fiduciary responsibility. It’s the board’s job to make sure that the organization uses its money wisely and properly, and that it has the money it needs to operate and grow. Historically, that has been a hurdle for the transit authority, and it’s one that we’re going to have to clear.
Weld: What about the challenge of changing the public’s perception of the BJCTA? Most people seem to recognize the advantages of having a viable transit system, but few seem to think that can happen. How do you deal with that?
Snyder: In our community, transit has been cast as something that is only for those without cars, people who are low-income or disabled or have some other special need. Certainly our transit system needs to serve those people, but it should not be looked at as serving those needs exclusively. I hope we can help folks look at the examples we have from other communities around the country where mass transit is a driver of economic development. We need to get to a place where our transit system is seen as a necessity for fulfilling our potential as a community, not just an obligation to the less fortunate.
Weld: The relationship between the BJCTA and the city of Birmingham has been pretty rocky of late. What are your thoughts about that relationship and how some of the problems might be addressed?
Snyder: Obviously, that relationship needs to be strong and positive. The city is the largest source of funds for transit, and as the director of a nonprofit, I can tell you how important it is to work closely with your biggest donor. But it’s important that both parties understand the parameters of the relationship. The transit authority is in place to do a job, and it needs to be allowed to do that job and supported in its efforts. The city needs to hold the transit authority accountable for the dollars it receives, but it needs to do that without attempting to micromanage the system. As in any relationship, it’s important that everybody come to the table in a spirit of cooperation, unified around the goal of building a great transit system.
Weld: What about the state legislature? As it relates to funding in particular, any remedy for addressing the long-term needs and goals for transit in Birmingham and Jefferson County has to go through Montgomery. Historically, that has not yielded good outcomes. How big an issue is that in your mind?
Snyder: One thing I’m excited and hopeful about is that my experience in my day job, some of the relationships I’ve been able to establish with legislators, will be helpful in my role as a board member. My attitude toward dealing with the legislature is that we need to look forward. If we expect the legislature to address our long-term funding needs, we have to prove ourselves in the short term, show that we can succeed with the limited resources we have, then look to grow from there. I think if we can have that kind of success and build better working relationships at the legislative level, we can crack the funding nut.