AL.com – How can Birmingham and Jefferson County find the money and support to create a bigger, better transit system?
In part, area residents and community leaders must realize that public transit affects everyone, according to Henry Ikwut-Ukwa, manager of planning and development for the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority.
“We have to challenge the notion that transit is not for everybody,” Ikwut-Ukwa said Thursday. “Once we get that going, we can get everybody to contribute.”
Ikwut-Ukwa made these remarks while taking part in a panel discussion regarding public transportation and its importance to economic development at the Sustainable Smart Cities Symposium hosted by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) at the DoubleTree Hotel downtown.
The other members of the panel were Charles Ball, executive director of the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham; Barbara McCann of the U.S. Department of Transportation; Bill Taylor, president of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama; and Eduardo Behrentz, the dean of the school of engineering at The University of the Andes in Bogotá, Colombia
If the transit system can get more financial support, it can buy more vehicles and make itself a more viable option for riders, according to Ikwut-Ukwa, who said there are plenty of people who want to use the system.
“The demand is there, but we don’t have the vehicles,” he said. “We need the resources.”
He said that, at peak demand, the system only has about 68 buses on the roads.
Many medium-sized cities like Birmingham lack the vehicles they need to move people, according to Ikwut-Ukwa.
“We need to change the perception about transit,” Ikwut-Ukwa said. “That is crucial. It brings everybody to the table. You may not ride a bus every day, but there may be people in your office who don’t have vehicles. They have to get to work so you can do your job.”
The business community must take a leadership role in pushing better public transportation in the area, according to Ball, who said he has paid close attention to the transit issue for 40 years.
“We will not move forward if the business community stays on the sideline,” he said. “That is just my opinion.”
“We have no shortage of plans for improving transportation, be it roads or transit,” Ball said. “What we have lacked – at least since MAPS failed – is that our business community has stayed on the sideline regarding transit issues.”
He was referring to the Metropolitan Area Projects Strategy, or MAPs, a $525-million initiative rejected by Jefferson County voters in 1998 that would have funded, among other local projects, an improved regional transit system.
He cited several other communities, including some that he said are “even more conservative” than Birmingham, where the business community spoke out to support funding for new transit initiatives, including Salt Lake City, Utah; Denver, Colo., and Phoeniz, Ariz.
Texas is a conservative state, according to Ball, but in Dallas-Ft. Worth, “They have built every kind of road and transit project you can think of,” Ball said.
Mass transit in the United States should fare better overall in the coming years, according to McCann. “The economic model behind our transportation system is changing,” she said.
In the past, that system was based on building freeways, along with shopping malls and “big-box stores,” according to McCann.
“This was a successful model in the past,” she said. “Now we see a shift to a different model that emphasizes the quality-of-life issues. It’s a transition we are in the middle of.”