In August, the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority Board threatened a reduction of public transit routes in the city of Birmingham, Alabama of up to 75 percent (nearly all routes) starting in September. Service hours would be limited to rush hour only and weekend service would be completely eliminated. This would bring about major job cuts and leave those dependent on public transport without any means of getting around.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau roughly 2,000 people or more depend on public transportation in Birmingham as their main mode of commuting. These include people who cannot afford a vehicle of their own, the disabled, members of the homeless community and others, not to mention the bus drivers themselves. Massive cuts encompassing well over half of the routes would be a huge blow to the thousands of working-class people, from various backgrounds, who rely on this lifeline to get them where they need to go.
This system has historically been an important issue in Birmingham dating back to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. When we think of buses in Birmingham, Alabama, usually the first image that comes to mind is Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger in 1955. While formal Jim Crow ended decades ago, the issue of public transit in Birmingham remains vital to residents. The time and context may change, but the fight between working people and the ruling class remains.
On August 21 a forum in defense of the public transit system was held at Saint Paul United Methodist Church. In attendance were members and representatives of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Greater Birmingham Ministries, Democratic Socialists of America and the Party for Socialism and Liberation, in addition to riders, including people with disabilities and their advocates.
People spoke out against the BJCTA Board’s threats to “pursue other options.” Pursuing other options here means privatization which would only further exacerbate existing problems with the bus system in Birmingham. It is worth noting that five of the nine members of the BJCTA Board were directly appointed by the City Council and the Mayor, meaning the Board is basically unaccountable to riders and workers. Many transit activists believe that since the board facilitates the management of a public service, the people naturally deserve the right to both elect and recall any official overseeing said service.
The tenth person in line to speak at the forum was an elderly blind woman who had this to say about the proposed cuts:
“I live in West End and catch the #4, which only comes twice a day, and am completely stuck otherwise. I work with people as a part of the AIDB [Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind], most of whom are blind or hearing impaired. I can therefore say from personal and professional experience that bus service cuts directly affect those with no other option, and I can’t imagine someone trying to get to dialysis treatment or work and having no way to do so.”
The following day a surprise vote was held by the Board which ruled in favor of the riders and workers of public transit. The 2019 budget was kept at $10 million versus the proposed budget of $5 million. This was a victory for the transit system as well as all of those whose lives depend upon access to it. It further proves what is possible when people in a community unite to achieve a common goal.
Of course, this by no means is the end of the struggle to ensure reliable, community-oriented public transit service. We need to democratize the BJCTA Board in order to make the officials sitting on it both electable and re-callable at anytime and continue the fight to defend and extend public transit.