For decades Birmingham’s bus system has been troubled, its riders virtually invisible, since the majority of residents forego mass transit in favor of private vehicles. The last attempt to change funding for the public transit system in any real way was in 2004, nearly a decade ago.
But as downtown Birmingham experiences a renaissance of street life and people moving back into center city, residents in and around Birmingham are again looking at the buses — commonly known by the brand MAX — and asking: Why don’t we have a functional transit system? Why can’t we all ride the bus, if we want?
Joyce Brooks, chairman of the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority board, recently wrote an editorial in Weld about ongoing and upcoming improvements to the bus system in hopes that the BJCTA can “become one of the best transit systems in the nation.”
It’s an aggressive and admirable goal. Looking at the current state of public transit in Birmingham, some might consider it a seemingly impossible one. When people talk about the about the bus, the conversation often goes in a circle.
Residents who are more than 60 years old remember the days when buses and streetcars crisscrossed the city’s grid. From nostalgia, the conversation devolves into complaints about lack of funding, corruption, presumably indigent bus riders, allegedly disrespectful bus drivers and long waits. There is a pervasive fear or disdain of riding the bus. The majority of people in Birmingham do not and have never ridden the bus and the question often becomes, “Who does ride the bus, anyway?”
Weld is taking a look at such issues in a two-part series on the state of the buses in Birmingham, beginning this week. The first part will detail the history of the transit system in Birmingham and attempt to answer the question, “How did we get here?” The second will look at the present state of the buses, and how officials, planners and riders are looking to change the bus system for the better.
The downtown branch of the Birmingham Public Library keeps a stack of files labeled “Transit Systems: Birmingham.” The folders, filled with newspaper articles, are divided by decade, up until the first few years of the 21st century. The thickness of the folders is a testament to the importance of public transit to Birminghamians through the years.
The section devoted to the 1960s is overstuffed. The 1970s, less so. For the 1980s, it’s the thickness of a legal pad. For the 1990s? Just three sheets of paper.
The articles are awash with fonts and pictures that elicit nostalgia for mid-century Americana: black-and-white cartoons of buses with the profiles of beauty queens and bouncy white wheels. In one, two ladies in pencil skirts and great coats trot onto the bus in their high heels carrying Christmas presents and groceries, while a small boy sputters behind ready to play with his new toy plane.
Flipping through the articles, a cycle emerges. There are headlines – “30 New Buses Hit the Streets” — proclaiming the progress of the bus system. Then there are articles about the lack of funding, the impracticality of routes. Soon headlines are in full caps-lock panic, detailing routes and services that will be cut. And then somewhere, someone finds some money and the bus system continues limping along – its future often seeming to be in doubt.
Read together, these articles don’t just tell the history of transit. They map part of the history of Birmingham and how its citizens get around.
Private to public
The ‘60s were the pinnacle for bus transport in Birmingham. Automobiles were not yet affordable to everyone, so people from all strata of society were more inclined to take the bus. To get downtown, go east to Woodlawn or south to Homewood, a rider would take a bus operated by the Birmingham Transit Company, a private business owned by John Jemison. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy proposed a $500 million transit bill to develop rush hour public transit options in urban areas, ushering in an age of publicly owned transit.
Editorials in The Birmingham News urged the city and state government to take a cut of the federal money. In 1967 Irving Beiman, The Birmingham News business editor, wrote an editorial entitled “Rapid rail transit for area urged.” Beiman interviewed Russ Bowersox at a conference sponsored by the Institute for Rapid Transit in Atlanta, who calmly opined, “A high-speed run from Atlanta through Birmingham to New Orleans with connections to Houston and Dallas Fort-Worth would appear also to offer possibilities for the future.”
In the midst of all this talk of growing public transit nationally, Birmingham had other concerns. The Civil Rights Movement gained energy and fervor after the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and, in 1963, the most critical protests of the era moved into downtown Birmingham. In response to integration, white neighborhoods in Birmingham proper cleared out and the folks who used to live in them took flight over Red Mountain, into the suburbs. Birmingham and its buses became predominantly occupied by African-Americans.
By 1971, the private bus system wasn’t making any profit, and Jemison sold everything to the city. All over the U.S., once-privately owned and operated transit companies similarly cut their losses and sold their buses. The businessmen weren’t stupid. They could see down the road to the phalanx of Chevys and Cadillacs driving straight into cities.
“The problem,” wrote Charles Richardson, an editor at The Birmingham News, “in Birmingham and elsewhere, is traced to the rise of the automobile and changing social patterns.” The city of Birmingham bought Jemison’s land and fleet of old buses, and the Alabama Legislature set up the Birmingham Transit Authority, which would eventually come to be called the Birmingham and Jefferson County Transit Authority.
And so began the confusing math that would finance the system, confusing today even to Bill Foisy, who retired in 2011 from the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham after 38 years as the director of transportation and planning.
Foisy came to work in Birmingham in 1973 fresh from grad school. He admits that after nearly four decades in transit, he doesn’t understand how the buses are funded in Birmingham. “The whole organization has been fatally flawed from day one,” Foisy says, because of funding. Every municipality that signs on — there were eight in the beginning: Bessemer, Birmingham, Brighton, Fairfield, Homewood, Iron Dale, Mountain Brook and Tarrant — will pay 10 percent of a capped ad valorem tax to fund the bus system. Jefferson County puts in an additional 6 percent of its ad valorem.
If they want bus service, cities can opt in. If they don’t want service, they don’t have to pay. Their decision can be reassessed annually, so every year the bus company must make the rounds through the various cities camped around Birmingham, asking how much bus service they want this year.
Historians call the flower petals of municipalities around Birmingham the “Balkanization of Birmingham,” the division of the Birmingham Metropolitan Area into small, distinct and separate cities. “Why was [the Transit Authority] only Birmingham and a few other cities?” Foisy asks, pointing to the initial formation. “Because basically it was a black system, and no one else really cared. Separate but equal. It was reflected in the school system. How many governments do we have? How many school systems? And transit got caught up in that.”
Federal funding will match around 20 percent of the budget. The state of Alabama will pay nothing. Alabama is only one of four states that has no state backing for public transport.
A 1952 amendment to the Constitution of Alabama made sure of it. Amendment 93 says in curlicue, repetitive bureaucratese that no money from the tax on gasoline or fees from registration and licensing can be used for anything other than the upkeep of roads and bridges.
Statewide and countywide opposition to funding the bus system was aggressive, and Birmingham politicians and newspapers speculated as to the origin of this enmity for something as seemingly innocuous as public transportation. In August 1976, four years into the Transit Authority’s existence, the Birmingham Post-Herald ran an article entitled, “Can’t ignore racial aspects of transit funding.”
The article quotes then-Mayor David Vann at a press conference about funding the buses as saying, “I think there is a racial thing in this…” The writer, the Post-Herald’s longtime Editorial Page Editor Karl Seitz, continued, “The economic necessity of having a public transportation system in a community the size of Birmingham should be so clear when all objective factors are weighed that one must look for an emotional factor to account for the widespread opposition.”
There were some good years. In the ‘70s, the Transit Authority implemented a “Green Zone,” a swath of downtown 15 streets long and eight avenues wide where all rides were free. The goal was to entice people to come down and shop, but in 1974, the Green Zone was discontinued after complaints from Homewood and Bessemer that the service was hurting their own municipal business districts.
After Christmas and New Year, at the beginning of 1975, then-Mayor of Birmingham George Seibels remarked, “If people would just realize how much money they can save by riding the buses instead of their own cars […] I think they would do it.”
But Birmingham didn’t.
There were repeated attempts to find more money. A half-cent sales tax was vetoed. A three-cent cigarette tax was tabled by Governor George Wallace. There were several calls throughout the years to force the state to allot some of the gas tax money to transit. Foisy says the constant stand off about a gas tax was a “disingenuous fight.”
“I can be quoted from here to the hereafter that even though the state should contribute, that is an excuse and not a reason for doing something locally,” he says. Foisy believes the region should look for money first, because even if Birmingham could get money from the gas tax, it would only amount to $1-3 million annually.
Even without funding, the buses have to run. A survey in 1977 showed that 60 percent of people who take the bus make less than $5,000 a year. Nearly all the people who stepped on a bus in 1979 — 92 percent — did not have a car.
In 1979, almost a decade in, the demand for public transit was still alive. In a survey of employees at Birmingham’s largest employers — UAB, Alabama Power, Liberty Bell, the Social Security Administration and Southern Natural Gas — 91.8 percent of respondents said they would use a commuter service, if Birmingham had one.
As the bus continued to lose municipal funding, in 1978, the Birmingham Regional Planning Commission talked about building a subway or a monorail line to “build a Birmingham of the 21st Century.” There was so much talk about modern, mass transit that an eight-page insert in the May 14, 1978 edition of The Birmingham News was called “A Report to the Citizens on Transportation 1978-2000.” The front page, in what looked like Schoolhouse Rock font, carried the subheading, “What will Birmingham transportation be like in the year 2000? Attend community meetings that are concerned with this vital question.”
Inside, the paper listed the possibilities: light rail, commuter rail, high capacity rapid transit, non-stop express buses, dial-a-ride, an exclusive lane for buses. It was an urban planner’s dream.
Off the tracks
Into the ‘80s the complaints about the buses’ debt grew louder. The transit authority complained to the municipalities that they should pay for service, saying that otherwise, there won’t be any.
In February of 1981, the threat turned into a transit shutdown. For five months the city had no operating bus service. Churches, neighbors and families had to pitch in to drive people to work.
At the beginning of the five-month shutdown, an article from The Birmingham News Sunday edition March 1, 1981, read, “Birmingham becomes the largest U.S. city without a bus system.”
In June, the buses started up again, but an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said that Birmingham’s fares were as high as those in much-larger Chicago, and that the Birmingham transit authority had cut 37 percent of its service.
The strike did more than inconvenience people throughout Birmingham for five months; it taught people that they could not and should not rely on the bus. Those who had to take the bus learned that they had to have a back-up system ready in case.
Before the boycott, 30,000 people a day took the bus. Afterwards, only 18,000 ventured back.
News articles stressed a transit system in crisis. Year after year the problem of funding the bus system escalated to screaming headlines and calls for another shutdown. Then the short-term crises seemed to end, resolved with a little less funding, shortened routes and a lot of panicked bus riders.
At some point along the way, the legislature changed the funding formula. Now, participating municipalities had to pay per hour of service.
In the 1990s a new idea was proposed, a regional transit system to encompass Jefferson and Shelby Counties. The system then proposed would have been renamed the Birmingham Area Regional Transit Authority (BARTA) and the promises were exciting: tripling the number of buses, bringing the fleet to around 230 buses; rush hour wait times of only 20 minutes; suburban bus routes stretching west to Adamsville, east to Leeds; a new intermodal system downtown to house the buses and an eventual rail system.
Back then, the idea was that funding would come from a quarter-cent sales tax and a $10 annual fee per-vehicle for auto emissions inspections. Shelby County quickly dropped out. The vote of the remaining municipal constituents of the bus system was close. BARTA passed in three out of five Jefferson County Commission districts. One county commissioner, Chris McNair, wouldn’t vote for it, and the idea died.
Throughout the 1990s and into the current century, the BJCTA went through a series of executive directors. At a two-year pace, new directors were hired and then replaced.
There were upswings. Birmingham became one of the few public transit systems with 90 percent of the fleet run on natural gas. But clean energy buses couldn’t, for many potential riders, make up for the fact that wait times became as long as one hour.
And the debate about funding continued.
In 2004, State Representative George Perdue of Birmingham made one more attempt to find money: a Jefferson County-wide vehicle registration tax. The tax would cost an average of $43 per vehicle and would bring in $40 in revenue for the bus system. The idea had traction; 49 representatives voted in favor and only six against. But out of 105 representatives, the vote was still shy of the 63 votes needed to amend the Alabama Constitution.
With that, the most recent attempt at regional funding died.
In 2010, during the gubernatorial election debates, Governor Robert Bentley spoke unabashedly, and pointed to how those in statewide power often see the issue. “Birmingham,” Bentley said, “is not a mass transit city. It’s just not. If you take light rail to get downtown, what then?” He was responding to a question about how people would get from a theoretical train station to an office downtown. It’s a common opinion, but one that is beginning to be questioned as downtown Birmingham looks towards a rebirth.
In 2011, the Brookings Institution placed the Birmingham metropolitan area in 94th place out of 100 in a ranking of the nation’s largest metro which provided public transport to working people. There are only six areas the survey deemed worse.
According to the report, only 32 percent of Birmingham-area workers have access to public transportation, compared with an average of 69 percent in all other cities included in the study.
It’s 2013. Birmingham, with its suburbs attached, is a community of 1,128,047 people, one-fourth the population of Alabama. The BJCTA’s 115 buses run at one-hour intervals. But there is talk of improvement.
Birmingham’s City Council has ideas about how to expand public transit into the rural areas of Jefferson and Shelby County. The Regional Planning Commission has ideas about how to bring visitors from the airport to UAB, the Westin Hotel and Regions Field. The new head of the BJCTA, Ann August, has ideas about where to find more money.
So what will Birmingham and Alabama do? Can this cycle be broken? Or will this become just another article in an empty, often-forgotten file?
Next week: Riding the bus