Birmingham Mayor William Bell announced Monday that the city has secured a $20 million TIGER Grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The grant money will go towards funding a 15-mile Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route that will connect roughly 25 lower-income neighborhoods in and around Birmingham. A BRT system is similar to a surface level subway, or trolley system, with specified lanes for the buses to avoid traffic and platforms for loading and unloading at the stops.
Often BRTs are connected to a cable and run off electricity. However, it is still unclear exactly how the city will design the system.
Prior to Bell’s press conference, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell announced that the grant had been secured.
“I am proud to have helped secure this $20 million TIGER Grant for this critically important project. Birmingham is a city on the rise, and this project will support our efforts to improve our public transportation, and revitalize the Magic City,” Sewell said in a press release.
“One of the primary goals of President Obama’s Ladders of Opportunity initiative is community revitalization. This project will help us create more economic opportunities for underserved communities, and contribute to the success of the Birmingham World Games in 2021,” Sewell continued.
Even before the World Games in six years, the BRT system could potentially change the way Birmingham is developed in the future, according to Birmingham City Councilor Johnathan Austin.
“This could be a shot in the arm to some of the neighborhoods. The stops that will be in the neighborhoods could see big economic changes because of that,” Austin said.
The grant will not solve all the transit system’s woes, Bell said. “We started out with a deficit down through the years and we did not have enough money to do all the things we want to,” Bell said. “It’s still critical that we get more operating funds. We do very well with capital funds but our obvious needs are operating funds to expand the transit system.”
Bell did not specify how much the project would cost. As for a timeline on the project, he said, “It’s going to take time. [It will be] 60 days before the [grant] money actually comes in. The plans are already in place. Once we get the money though we will be able to have a better idea of a timeline.”
Austin said the city will find a way to fund the project but he didn’t know how exactly. “We don’t have all the money but we will figure out how we are going to pay for it,” Austin said, eliciting chuckles from the other councilors in attendance.
Bell was asked about whether he and the council could cooperate to figure out BRT funding. “That is a private conversation,” he responded.
April Odom, director of communications for the mayor’s office, said it has not been determined which 25 neighborhoods would be connected by the BRT, or whether the new addition to the system would replace existing bus stops. Also unclear is how quickly the BRT system will be able to get people from one point to another.
The announcement of the BRT comes at a time of turmoil at the Birmingham-Jefferson Transit Authority. BJCTA Executive Director Ann August announced her resignation after serving since January 2013, citing disagreements between herself and members of the board regarding the direction the agency and how it should operate.
During the press conference, Birmingham City Councilor Kimberly Rafferty took a moment to thank August for her dedication in securing the federal grant money. “Birmingham is taking control of the reigns of the region,” Rafferty said, “Birmingham took the first step, hopefully other municipalities can follow suit.”
Interim BJCTA executive director Barbara Murdock, said that this will help take Birmingham and Jefferson County to the next generation of transit.
“BRT will secure funding over next one to three years to get the new buses and finalize the stops,” Murdock said during a separate press conference at the BJCTA offices.
BJCTA board member Patrick Sellers said this project could potentially be a precursor to a light rail system. “In a year or two you will see vast improvement in route optimization. As we grow other communities will want to get on board and be part of the system,” Sellers said.
Also important, Sellers added, is cooperation between municipalities and state officials. Currently, Sellers said, “Alabama is one of three states without dedicated funding for mass transit. We need to work with the legislature to change this.”