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The case for a statewide look at transit

02.2.2009 by André Natta · → 2 Comments

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With much attention focused on issues that mean nothing in this upcoming, lengthy campaign to select our state’s next Governor, luckily one issue that should be front and center in the coming weeks will receive some attention today because of presumptive Democratic candidate Artur Davis‘ appearance at a summit in downtown Birmingham as its keynote speaker.

The issue is transit.

As the State Legislature begins its new session on Tuesday with a potential first step plainly in front of them, the question is whether or not transit can become the issue that symbolically and physically begins to unite this state and take it into the 21st century. 

One point that has been raised again and again about the Inauguration was the ability for Washington’s Metro system to move more people than normal (4 ½ times more to be exact) and to demonstrate just what it would be like with limited access for cars. It’s also definitely been a question on some minds as my last post didn’t get any feedback except for one person wanting the discussion to look to transit.

A proposal being presented by Alabama State Representative Rod Scott (D) allows the state’s numerous transit systems (and there are several) to work together to collect funds to move all of them, large and small, forward. A task force would study whether or not a fully functioning commission would be necessary and identify how this commission would be able to work in the best interest of the entire state to include transit solutions in discussions about transportation in the years and decades ahead. For those wondering if even some of these transit providers could get along, I recently attended one of their first meetings and while there may still be a couple of questions, all agree that the issue of transit and securing adequate funding to provide the service that the people of Alabama need is a top priority.

There are monies that may be available if the President’s economic stimulus plan is passed that would provide a way for the state to take a good, hard look at transit and how it could also become a major tool in economic development, allowing not just those living in rural communities or our state’s inner cities but those living in our wealthiest neighborhoods to be able to have a relatively inexpensive, reliable and efficient method of travel to and from work. Even if those monies end up not being available, the collective bargaining power of this alliance among transit providers should allow for other funding sources to be identified.

The benefits in Birmingham are ones worth pointing out. A light rail system similar to our long departed streetcar system would provide an easy way for folks to get around town, perhaps going to work, a concert in Railroad Reservation Park, or maybe even give folks a much cheaper way to get to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. Of course, being able to fully fund our bus system and seeing folks use it consistently will determine that future than anything else, particularly in light of Birmingham’s street paving project effectively halting any plans for it (unless the Regional Planning Commission has finally worn the mayor down on the concept of bus rapid transit, which could do many of the things a light rail system could do), though the paving needed to be done.

We could even get to the point where those in our tech community could enjoy WiFi during their commute, a service that the Bay Area’s BART system recently announced would be expanded to be systemwide within the next two years.

After speaking with some of the principals and attending the first meeting of the group supporting Scott’s measure in Montgomery (comprised in part of some of Alabama’s larger transit authorities) I believe that it’s something whose time has come. It is not a question of turning our backs on our cars as much as it is an chance to help jumpstart the future of the state and of gaining true support for it.

André Natta is the managing editor of The Terminal.

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Filed under: development · politics