In the modern history of Birmingham — that is to say, the years since the end of World War II, which somewhat paradoxically had given it a new lease on life — our city has faced more than its share of existential issues. Among those, none encapsulates more fully the flaws of civic character that have weakened Birmingham’s ability to compete against its Southeastern rivals for business growth and population gains than mass transit.
Inadequate planning. Lack of consensus and coordination among business, government and citizens. Race-based politics at both the municipal and county level. The decline of the city’s downtown area as a business and commercial center. Political balkanization and open animosity between Birmingham and its suburbs. The absence of visionary governmental and corporate leadership. Singularly and in various combinations, these factors have defined Birmingham and hamstrung efforts to furnish the citizens of the region with a first-class mass transit system.
Such was not always the case. The city had an outstanding transit system through the first half of the 20th century. Before it was discontinued in 1953, an extensive streetcar network provided inexpensive transportation to destinations throughout the city and in various suburban locations to the west, north and south of the city proper. The streetcar system was weakened somewhat by the rapid postwar expansion of automobile ownership, but even more so by the growing national trend toward bus-based mass transit.
After replacing the city’s streetcars with buses, the Birmingham Transit Company saw steady declines in ridership and revenues. By March of 1954, the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, in an effort to revive the ailing system, saw fit to pass a resolution calling for an increase in fares and other measures aimed at raising the transit company’s revenues.
Birmingham for the first time is face to face with the reality that public transit must pay its way, the resolution read. A transit system is indispensable to Birmingham and Jefferson County. It follows, therefore, that the Birmingham Transit Company must be permitted to live or else it will fail and then the taxpayers will be saddled with a losing transit system.
If the Chamber’s declaration was meant to promote the notion of effective and efficient bus service, words were the extent of what that organization or any other public or private group would bring to the issue of mass transit for nearly 20 years afterward. The bus system did not go away, but rather went into prolonged decline, subsumed — along with other glaring deficiencies such as air service, indigent medical care, land use planning and economic development — in the preoccupation of local leaders with controlling the public relations disaster wrought by their refusal to deal head-on with the issue of civil rights.
By the end of the Civil Rights Era, the future of mass transit in Birmingham had assumed the proportions of a full-blown crisis. Demand for better bus service had never been higher, but the Birmingham Transit Company lacked the resources to expand the number and frequency of routes to ever-sprawling suburban locations. The BTC asked the city of Birmingham to purchase its assets and lease them back to the company to operate.
Again, the Chamber of Commerce stepped in. Under the leadership of its chairman, Richard Pizitz, the Chamber in 1971 spearheaded the formulation and successfully lobbied for passage of the legislation that created the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority. The independent authority consisted of five members, with two appointed by the city of Birmingham and one each by the Jefferson County Commission, the county legislative delegation and the consortium of 10 suburban municipalities participating as paying members of the new system.
Unfortunately, the “new day” in mass transit was a short one. The BJCTA quickly proved to be “regional” in name only, as it descended into turf battles and power disputes. When it became apparent that a number of the municipalities that had signed on originally were not going to pay their pro rata share of operating the bus system, the Chamber went on the offensive, engaging key local leaders in convincing local governments to fund the system. The immediate crisis was resolved, but the BJCTA proved to be a perennially fragile partnership, and the vision of a truly regional transit system was never fully realized.
Fast-forward through another quarter-century-plus of inadequacy, and we arrive at 1998. That’s when U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, at the behest of the Chamber of Commerce, managed to set aside $80 million in federal funding for a feasibility study and initial development of a light-rail system for the Birmingham region, and the attendant expansion of the bus system. All that was required to activate the funds was a $20 million local match.
More than four years later, when the match had not materialized, Shelby made his displeasure known to a delegation of local business and political leaders. Along with other organizations, the Chamber formed the Alliance for Transportation Alternatives, which in 2003 advanced legislation to restructure the BJCTA and secure the matching funds to trigger the $80 million Shelby had allocated. But what should have been a no-brainer even for the inveterately divided Jefferson County legislative delegation, the chance of a lifetime, was lost in a welter of racial politics.
All of which brings us to the current — and, as ever, tenuous — state of affairs with Birmingham’s bus system. As reported in this space last week, despite recent signs of improvement in a system that continues to be grossly underfunded, Birmingham Mayor William Bell’s proposed budget for the 2015 fiscal year calls for slashing funding to the BJCTA by nearly 17 percent.
While subsequent conversations over the past week lead me to think that the Birmingham City Council will not sit still for Bell’s proposed cut to transit, I do not suffer from the delusion that the council has the vision or wherewithal to forge a solution that will enhance the long-term viability of the system. Developing and maintaining a comprehensive mass transit system is even more “indispensable to Birmingham and Jefferson County” today than it was when the Chamber of Commerce adopted its resolution in 1953. Doing so will require strong leadership from both the public and private sectors.
Who will provide that leadership? On the private side, I’d suggest the Chamber of Commerce, if we still had one. We do have the Birmingham Business Alliance, which succeeded the Chamber in 2010. And the BBA, in its much ballyhooed “blueprint” for Birmingham’s growth, does include improved mass transit among its priorities.
Not that we have seen any evidence of that to date. But perhaps now, with Birmingham’s mayor having abdicated his own leadership role in that regard, the BBA will live up to its heritage and take the lead in addressing this vital community issue.