With several dozen transit advocates looking on, the Finance Committee tonight voted to continue funding full transit service until at least Jan. 31–putting off the day of reckoning for Homewood’s regular riders and the disabled and elderly.
That vote was followed with unanimous approval (Moody absent) at the council meeting that followed.
Tonight’s called committee meeting was widely interpreted to be the last one before the council abandoned talks to restore bus service funding. The council on Sept. 22 slashed MAX’s $263,000 annual funding in half, citing no board representation, low ridership and unfavorable cost comparisons with sister cities, Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook. The transit authority in response proposed eliminating midday service (from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.) on the fixed routes, creating corresponding cuts in special-needs transportation during those same hours. The agency nevertheless had pledged to keep full service intact until a Dec. 22 deadline while it pleaded its case for a reconsideration.
With that deadline looming, the committee’s reconsideration tonight came in the form of a six-week extension of full service. (The reprieve is a tenuous one, however, as the council also passed a provisional and uncertain contract with ClasTran to provide stop-gap paratransit services should it decide to make the MAX cuts permanent.)
Council proceedings were delayed a half hour as the committee took comments from riders and transit advocates. No one spoke in favor of cuts.
John Wright, 86, a long-time transit advocate and former Homewood councilman, handed out booklets entitled Birmingham Transit A Trail of Tears, making an impassioned call for a “Christmas truce” to put off a final decision two more weeks. Former ASFA director John Northrup also spoke, saying that Homewood’s decision would weaken a regional transit system that needed to be more robust.
The committee’s primary interest, however, was finding alternative service for some 69 paratransit riders living in Homewood. By tonight’s meeting, hardliners on the committee had narrowed their concern to providing alternative transportation to 15 “active” paratransit riders identified from BJCTA records. Committee member Heather Reid said she had actually called each of those riders in her ward to gauge the impact of service cuts, and most were only sporadic users–about twice a month, she said. Her concerns and those of members Britt Thames and Peter Wright were shaped mainly by containing costs. This, despite opening remarks from Mayor Scott McBrayer that Homewood could well afford full transit services.
“We have been investing in transit for years with no questions asked,” he said. “For the city of Homewood, I don’t think it’s ever been about the money.” Rather, the city was properly concerned that it was getting quality service in return for its money, he said.
Before the final vote, several speakers defended transit as an instrument of regional development and cooperation.
A councilman speaks out against cuts
“I see other cities that do so much better than us,” said Fred Hawkins, a councilman who is not on the Finance Committee. Mr. Hawkins voted against the cut in September. He chastised both the transit board and committee for harsh remarks made during the talks, and for failing to communicate with each other. Still, he called the council’s decision to make such a deep cut “arbitrary,” before any questions were even asked. “It’s bad for economic growth. It’s bad for everything we do. It’s bad,” he said about the cuts.
Mr. Hawkins’ comments were followed by those of Lawton Higgs, a retired pastor and Homewood resident who said he regularly rides the Route 42 bus. He pointed to the absence of weekend bus service in Homewood and questioned the impact of further cuts on local businesses. Workers and customers to Brookwood Hospital and the mall would feel the effects, he said. He spoke in favor of reinstating full transit service for everyone, not just disabled riders.
Keeping transit viable was especially important during a spirit of economic renewal going on in Birmingham and Homewood, he said. “We’re on the move. Have you noticed? We need our buses to make life quality and meaningful.” said.
Tonight’s vote punctuated 10 weeks of emotional deliberations in which BJCTA officers, including executive director Ann August-Dawson, were repeatedly called on the carpet by committee members critical of high costs. Members Britt Thames and Peter Wright (who made the original motion to cut funding by half) have been especially vocal. At issue for Mr. Thames was a lack of ridership compared to relative cost–many stops on Route 39 had few or even no riders, according to a BJCTA audit. Mr. Wright continually cited the city’s costs compared to neighboring cities, and a loss of a transit board seat as a reason for his dissatisfaction. (Transit board seats, which are allotted based on population, were reapportioned in 2012 to Vestavia and Hoover, cities with fewer riders and costs than Homewood.)
Ms. August-Dawson has responded with her own questions, asking why the city hadn’t lobbied the state delegation for better representation. As CEO, she doesn’t control the composition of the board. She and the authority’s planning manager have offered to work on adjusting bus routes with city staff, not committee members. In more recent meetings, board chair Johnnye Lassiter has been present to defend the transit board’s record.
The full-funding extension approved tonight satisfied many transit advocates. However, it was decided largely because of uncertainties in the ClasTran proposal.
The ClasTran contract, if signed, would charge the city $154 per service day and $2 per rider. ClasTran director Fenn Church said he had put the proposal together hastily, was short of a needed vehicle until January, and was unsure about being able to deliver rides until he knew more about the riders and schedules. Also, the contract requires final approval by the BJCTA board, which administers ClasTran’s federal funding. Committee chair Walter Jones, a former transit board member, was skeptical of final approval.
The board’s next regular meeting is in January.