BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- Improved transit can be the catalyst for tapping unrealized economic potential along the Bessemer Super Highway corridor, a study recommends.
City leaders in communities along the corridor agreed changes would spur development, but said they likely would need cooperation from the state to help with implementation costs.
The Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham assembled transit and municipal officials Saturday at the Birmingham Crossplex Center to discuss results of the Southwest Corridor Transit Study with the public.
The study, funded by the Federal Transit Administration, looks at a two- to three-mile-wide swath tracing U.S. 11 for 22 miles from downtown Birmingham through Midfield, Lipscomb, Bessemer and western Jefferson County to the Bibb County line.
The corridor contains about 138,000 people and 40,000 jobs with the highest transit ridership rates in the region.
The study calls for bus rapid transit, commuter express routes and park-and-ride lots along the once robust corridor, which has experienced decline due to economic and population changes.
Such transit developments can attract investment, reviving and enhancing residential, retail and office space said Jack Schnettler, vice president of Atkins, Inc., the lead consultants on the corridor study.
A bus rapid transit route from Sixth Avenue West in downtown Birmingham to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Lomb Avenue, connecting to U.S. 11 at Five Points West and continuing through downtown Bessemer to a park-and-ride lot at Academy Drive.
The route would feature buses running every 10 to 15 minutes during peak hours with 25 stops. Traffic signals would be prioritized to serve the buses to keep them moving on schedule.
Two new commuter express routes, one along Interstate 20/59 to a park-and-ride lot in Bessemer and another linking park-and-ride lots at Academy Drive and Colonial Promenade Tannehill shopping center in McCalla.
Bus transfer centers at Five Points West and in downtown Bessemer.
New shuttle routes serving south Bessemer and Alabama 150 from Bessemer to the Galleria Mall.
If implemented, the improvements would use existing roads and tie in with other public transit routes, Schnettler said.
Schnettler said bus rapid transit has emerged as generally more flexible and less expensive to build than light rail, which he said can cost on average about $50 million per mile.
Schnettler suggested communities along the corridor put the study's recommendations into action by forming a "corridor coalition."
The group would meet regularly to keep dialogue going through the long-term process, prioritizing issues and strategies.
"That's very attractive in pursuing grants from federal agencies or foundations or other sources because they see communities working together," Schnettler said.
Other financial tools that could be used are special types of districts such as redevelopment areas, zoning designations and tax increment financing, he said.
TRANSIT ON BOARD
The recommendations are in line with the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority's goals, executive director Ann Dawson-August said during remarks at Saturday's meeting.
Dawson-August, who arrived in October, said the transit authority is working to replace outdated buses and making needed improvements in employee training and technology for better service. BJCTA also continues to collaborate with the city on building a new intermodal terminal.
The Southwest Corridor study recommends the kind of mobility options and connectivity that will further upgrade and modernize transit authority operations, August said.
The transit authority would like to change its "hub-and-spoke" service and incorporate more shuttles and other commuter services which are more cost-effective for commuters, she said.
"We know public transit is not a one size fits all, but if you only drive your car to work and park it, maybe you could take our services once or twice a week," August said.
City leaders along the corridor voiced approval of the study. They said public transit is important to the area's future but acknowledging challenges.
William Baylor, executive assistant to Midfield Mayor Gary Richardson, said the proposal would give many residents access to jobs, schools and higher education they've not had in the past. That is a reason Brighton Mayor Barbara Watkins said young people have left her city.
Bessemer Mayor Kenneth Gulley said inadequate transit means opportunity bypasses many residents when jobs are created.
"We have the economics coming into the city, but unfortunately, we are experiencing a great challenge in getting the people to the jobs," Gulley said.
Metro Birmingham's historic divisions have caused the region's public transit system to lag behind its peer cities as people don't realize transit's economic impact, Birmingham Mayor William Bell said.
Moving beyond the view of public transit as only for lower income residents will be important in implementing the study's recommendations, Bell said.
"In reality, it's a method for all of us to connect jobs and connect opportunities with homes," Bell said.
An obstacle, the officials agreed, would be funding any improvements.
Baylor, Bell and Gulley called on the Alabama Legislature to see that the corridor study is a viable concept with broad community support and cooperation that deserves final resources to assist the plan.
"I think that it gives us a great opportunity on the national level to receive funding because it's cities standing together in a very unique way," Baylor said.