$100 million public transit grant likely to expire

Published 5:30 pm Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A $100 million grant earmarked for public transit in the Birmingham area, including Shelby County, will likely expire in September without the money being used.

The grant, which has been on the table for four years, hasn’t been touched because it requires local government to raise 20 percent of matching funds, which just isn’t going to happen, said Hoover Mayor Tony Petelos.

“To try to raise that money from local municipalities is just about impossible,” he said. “We don’t have that kind of money.”

Petelos said Alabama is one of a few states that won’t subsidize public transportation, which sets cities up to fail, especially when it comes to raising a large sum of money.

However, State Rep. Mike Hill said that’s just the price of doing business.

“The state doesn’t have (the money). They’re certainly not going to take state money and fund a transit in Birmingham, or in Dothan or in Huntsville,” he said. “Your local government’s got to come up with it, and they’ve got to match 20 percent. Even if they wanted it, they couldn’t come up with the money to get it.”

Alabama has enough projects of its own that are underfunded to pass out match money to municipalities, Hill said.

“The state won’t pay the matching money for the cities because they have more projects in need of road construction than they have the money for,” he said.

Hill said he wasn’t surprised that the local governments were unable to raise the 20 percent match. After looking at the grant three years ago to determine why it wasn’t being used, Hill knew at that point that local governments wouldn’t be able to come up with the money.

The public transit system isn’t considered a state project because it won’t benefit the whole state — rather, it’ll just benefit the city it’s located in. Also, state legislators don’t know that public transportation will definitely work.

“They won’t take some money that’s already in need and give it to some city for mass transit to see if it works. They’re just not going to do it,” Hill said. “There’s not enough to go around, and they’re not going to give it all to Birmingham or to Mobile.”

Petelos said people don’t use the current Birmingham bus systems, ClasTran or MAX, because they’re unreliable.

“There’s people who have cars, and won’t ride public transportation because it’s just not reliable,” he said. “If you have a good transit system, it was probably funded from the state level and the federal level. You’ll have more people to ride it.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who has pushed the transit grant, said in a statement he was frustrated that the matching funds couldn’t be raised.

“I am disappointed that the Birmingham regional governments have yet to raise the 20 percent matching funds necessary to tap into the $100 million set aside in the 2005 Highway Bill for public transit along the I-65 corridor,” he said. “Nonetheless, I will do all I can do to keep these funds from expiring this fall in hopes that they can come up with a plan soon.”