Alabama is among just a handful of states where public transit is paid for not by the state but cities and counties, according to their ability and willingness to pay for it.

ByMark Hedin

When it comes to supporting public transit services, Alabama is near dead last among states, creating serious barriers for Alabamians just trying to get to work or to school, to church or to vote. For people with disabilities, the situation can be life-threatening.

That was the message at a recent press briefing hosted by the Alabama chapter of the League of Women Voters and the Alabama Disability Rights Coalition.

“The road builders got their hooks into the money and kept every single bit of it,” said Dev Wakeley with the non-profit advocacy group Alabama Arise. “It’s deplorable and shameful. We’ve been dealing with the stark societal consequences of it ever since.”

Wakeley was among a panel of speakers that included State assemblyman Neil Rafferty, along with community activists and would-be transit customers – including some who cannot drive – all of whom described how Alabama’s substandard public transportation system affects their lives and what might make things better.

“Bound to fail”

According to Rafferty, most states use gasoline tax money to pay for their public transit systems. All of Alabama’s neighboring states do. But in “the Heart of Dixie,” an early 1950s amendment to the state constitution put those funds off-limits for that purpose.

So public transit in Alabama is paid for not by the state government but cities and counties, according to their ability and willingness to pay for it.

“We all need public transportation,” said John Northrop of Alabama Coalition for Transit, “It’s how I got through college.” Birmingham buses carried him to and from Birmingham Southern College and his part-time jobs downtown when he didn’t yet have a car.

But in Alabama, “Not enough people have had positive experiences with public transit, and don’t understand the benefits,” he said.

“When you have such a patchwork system in the state, it’s bound to fail,” Rafferty concurred. “People can’t rely on it.”

Few transit options for disabled Alabamians

Percy Garrett, currently on the legislative committee for the National Federation of the Blind, spent 22 years as an active-duty Marine, going around the world on land, air and sea, he said.

After offering a “semper fi” to Rafferty, he related his experiences since losing his eyesight the year after retiring.

“Now I’m stuck in Alabama as a caged Marine,” he said. “I’m homebound. … My goal is to do something about it.”

But for now, he said, he can’t get to legislative sessions in Montgomery. And “in the last election,” he said, he called Houston County Transit to go vote, “and they said they couldn’t do it. I had to call Uber, had to pay a massive amount of money just to go vote.”

In 2018, Rafferty said, Alabama created a Public Transportation Trust Fund to support the state’s transportation systems. But there’s still no money in the fund.

So, he said, Alabama seems to have two paths forward: Fund the trust fund or amend the state constitution.

“We’re being held in captivity since 1952,” said Barbara Manuel, who is vision-impaired. She described an array of seemingly arbitrary obstacles she had to overcome to get even the minimal transportation services available.

Some of her neighbors, she said, can’t even get to important medical appointments.

“Legislators, we are asking you to please, please, hear our voices. I would go even further and ask you to place your (car) keys in your desk drawer for one week, and try to access public transportation. Then you would be able to see some of the issues that we face here in the state of Alabama.”

“We can’t solve everything overnight,” she said, “but at the same time, a level of civility and dignity is due to anyone.”

For the 32% of Alabamians whose disabilities make driving themselves impossible, reliable transit services would be a God-send.

Private vs public transportation

Lawyer Laurence Povinelli and his wife, both legally blind, moved to Huntsville, Alabama’s largest city, from nearby Madison. They were working at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal, which is located between the two and employs 39,000 people, but there was no paratransit service available in Madison.

“We had to set up our own private driver network through connections,” he said. “Unfortunately, most people do not have access to such resources.”

Where public transit of any sort is available, he and others said, using can be overwhelmingly difficult due to limited hours, range and service interruptions or, especially in the case of paratransit services, having to make reservations days in advance.

Those things make it hard to keep a job, or even get hired.

Jill Rossitor, of the National Federation of the Blind, Alabama was deemed legally blind at age 18 and has never driven a car, depending instead on friends, other drivers, or her now-grown children. She counts herself as very fortunate.

“The things that make life important are not just going to the store and to work,” she said. But for her, “just to take my children to a park was an impossibility.” So were after-school activities, such as football, cheer, or dance, she said, and when it comes to going to church on Sundays, there’s no hope of getting there via public transportation, even now. None of the services her community has run on Sunday mornings.

For some situations, people will suggest she use “ride-sharing” options such as Uber or Lyft, she said. But a trip that would cost her $3 on the bus is $33 that way.

“It’s not worth it. I would just take a personal day. But how many of those do you get?”

Infrastructure Law

Alabama is one of just three U.S. states that doesn’t fund public transit, but doing so would be a solid investment, Wakely said.

Although six of Alabama’s seven representatives in the U.S. Congress, and both senators opposed the 2022 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, it nonetheless provided more than $76 million for transit projects across the state, including $11 million for Birmingham and $4 million for Montgomery.

Getting elected officials to approve anything that looks like a new tax, Wakely admitted, “is a heavy lift,” so a general fund appropriation might be the way to go.

But, however they do it, he said, “the return is HUGE.”

More federal funds are available to match state allocations dollar-for-dollar for staffing needs, for instance, and when it comes to “capital outlays” – things like buying new buses – the match is 4-1. Some of those federal dollars, if the state reaches out for them, might never leave Alabama. New Flyer’s Anniston facility is one of the largest electric bus factories in the United States. Already, in 2019, Huntsville’s Alabama A&M University successfully electrified its campus bus system.


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