Members of the Birmingham City Council clashed Tuesday over funding for the embattled Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority, which currently is mulling route cuts and fare increases within the city.
In July, the BJCTA announced it had repeatedly miscalculated how much it should charge Birmingham for transit services. Instead of $53.97 per service hour, BJCTA officials said, the actual cost should be $82.36 per hour. That 65% increase would require the city to increase funding for the BJCTA from $10 million a year to $16.5 million. BJCTA Interim Executive Director Frank Martin told AL.com in July that Mayor Randall Woodfin had rejected the requested increase because the city was already too far along in its FY 2020 budgeting process. “They were set,” Martin said. “There was no wiggle room.”
In response, the BJCTA had claimed that it would have no option but to cut roughly 30% of its services to the city starting Sept. 23 and that a fare increase would be likely. Earlier this month, though, the BJCTA failed to pass its 2020 budget, delaying the proposed service cuts to Nov. 4 at the earliest.
The discussion at Tuesday’s City Council meeting was sparked by comments from Gregory Roddy, a BJCTA employee and president of the Birmingham chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents public transit employees. Roddy argued that, because the council had been responsible for appointing a five-member majority of the BJCTA’s nine-member board, it should agree to the requested funding increase to prevent service cuts.
“I think that funding should not be held hostage … because of the guys that you have set up there,” Roddy said.
District 9 Councilor John Hilliard fought back against that argument, saying the current incarnation of the council had not appointed any of the board members. The most recent appointments to the board, Kevin Powe and Theodore Smith, were made Oct. 18, 2017 — one week before Hilliard, District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams and District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn took office. Council President Valerie Abbott, District 4 Councilor William Parker and District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt are the only three current councilors to have voted directly on BJCTA board members.
“I don’t control the board,” Hilliard told Roddy. “I don’t have that privilege. But I will promise you this, that when the time comes, if I’m still here, I’ll help you get some great board members, and I think my colleagues will be in assistance in that.”
Roddy also expressed concern about plans to introduce transit options funded by public-private partnerships into the city, which could include an on-demand microtransit program with a private company such as Via and that would operate similarly to Uber or Lyft. The city is planning a six-month pilot program, with the city paying $250,000 and the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham pledging another $250,000 to the project.
“How do you neglect the public while bringing somebody in there that’s going to be for profit? Everything they do is going to be for profit,” he said. “You can’t substitute public for private, not when it comes to transit.”
Hoyt called that argument a “valid point,” echoing a similar sentiment to the one he’d made in opposition to Woodfin’s proposed Birmingham Promise educational initiative earlier this year: “You need to fix what you already have.”
“Our first line of business is to advocate for those who are transit-dependent, not to advocate for private partnerships,” he said. “That’s not our role. If someone wants to go and create a different route, then let them do that, but we should not take part in that.”
The blame, he said, fell on the shoulders of O’Quinn, who chairs the council’s transportation committee and has been a major proponent of public-private partnerships. “Not one time have I seen the chairman coming to the rescue of transit,” Hoyt said. “The chairman is not for public transportation.”
He also urged voters to remember this during the 2021 municipal election, when O’Quinn will be running for re-election. “What I want you all to understand is, when you get ready to vote, when you go to the polls, just remember who invoked this,” he said.
O’Quinn, who argued last month that the city’s plans for a microtransit and Bus Rapid Transit program represented “a substantially increased investment in providing transportation to our citizens,” pushed back against Hoyt’s comments, saying that the transportation committee was responsible for more than just public transit.
“I believe the transportation committee’s responsibility is to promote mobility for our constituents and the city of Birmingham,” he said. “That includes public transit … (but) my number-one responsiblity that I’ve placed on myself … is to promote mobility of citizens Birmingham.”
“We need to be doing more, in my opinion, looking outside of just fixed-route bus service,” he added.