By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Tuesday, Alabama Arise Citizens’ Policy Project held a press conference in support of legislation to advance public transportation. The legislation, Senate Bill 85 and House Bill 10, is sponsored by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, and State Rep. Jack Williams, R-Vestavia.
Alice Paris chairs Alabama Arise’s legislative committee. “Alabama is one of only five states that do not fund public transit,” Paris said. “The state loses out on millions of dollars of transportation dollars every day. We are supporting legislation this year by Senator Rodger Smitherman and Rep. Jack Williams.”
“I appreciate all of you who have come down to the legislature and I want to thank you for being here today,” Williams said. “Our county [Jefferson] is at a crossroads. As we move forward we need to look at opportunities.”
“There are jobs we need to fill, and people who need jobs,” Williams said. “They need to connect. One way to do that is through public transportation. There is an opportunity that our state has not been able to take advantage of because we did not have funds to match federal dollars. This does not create a line item in the budget, but it creates a pot that funds can come into to support public transportation. This will allow us to have greater opportunities to enhance public transportation for the people of Jefferson County and the people of Alabama.”
Smitherman said, “Today, I am here about something that I am very passionate about. Some of these are the same people who were here supporting me on this from the time I have been here to now.”
“Rep. Neil Morrison, he and I sat down, and we worked for three years on this problem trying to put a plan together,” Smitherman said. “We developed a plan and brought it to the Department of Transportation. They were so sold on it that they went to a conference and presented it there. Kentucky liked it so much that they adopted it. Obstacles came up, and that moment was lost.”
“The State constitution says that the transportation money can only go to roads and bridges,” Smitherman said. “President Obama had money in there for public transportation and high speed rail. That is money we could have accessed. If we can get funds, we can get as much as an 80:20 match.”
Smitherman said that there is a new employer located in the Pinson Valley area. We need to get people to work. In my area, we have problems with EPA in our area; but we can locate things on the periphery; but we need transportation so our people can get to those jobs. There are also people with medical needs, such as people with kidney dialysis. This is a marriage between urban and rural. I want to be able to get on public transportation in Birmingham and ride it all the way to Montgomery. This is a golden opportunity to set the framework and infrastructure.”
“Alabama Arise has been working on this since the 1990s, when people were transitioning from welfare to work,” said Kimble Forester the executive director of Alabama Arise. “That transportation aspect has been the hardest part. This is one area where we have gone backwards. Public transportation is in the future. Those of you who think the future is in gasoline engines, we are starting to see that change.”
Smitherman said that he does not expect the Department of Transportation or the road builders to be a problem as this is not touching their pot of money. Last year, local governments received $52 million in federal grants; but the state has not received any.
SB85/HB10 would: create the Alabama Public Transportation Trust fund to receive future appropriations for expanding public transit options; authorize the Alabama Department of Commerce Affairs to administer the fund; require ADECA to adopt trust fund rules, conduct public transportation needs assessments and make annual reports; and create an advisory committee to ensure that projects supported by the trust fund address the needs of rural areas, seniors and people with disabilities.
Smitherman has gotten his bill through its Senate Committee. Rep. Jack Williams said that getting the bill on the House calendar will be where the challenge is.
Jack Williams is running for county commissioner in Jefferson County and will not be returning to the legislature in 2019.