Opinion: Public transportation is a path to a brighter future for Alabama

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The following is an opinion article from Stephen Stetson of Arise Citizen's Policy Project:

Maybe you've been trying to make plans with some friends when one of them suggests, "I could just take the bus," leading to eye-rolling and sighs all around. "Must not be from around here," everyone thinks at once.

Or maybe you have wondered, while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, why there isn't a fast train to take people from Birmingham to Montgomery, or maybe even extended tracks to link Mobile to Huntsville and create a fast, efficient north-south corridor.

Or maybe you visited a city in another state, used the public transportation there and wondered, "Why doesn't Alabama have something like this?"

The reasons behind Alabama's transportation shortcomings are numerous, and they're the subject of a new report released this month by Alabama State University's Center for Leadership and Public Policy. The full report, "Connecting Our Citizens for Prosperity," is available at arisecitizens.org.

The report analyzes why we're so reliant on cars and trucks in Alabama. It also discusses the dangers of being disconnected – and what we can do to improve the situation.

You need not be a fan of urban buses or high-speed trains to have concerns about transportation funding and infrastructure in Alabama. There's also a crisis looming for folks committed to roads and bridges. Federal and state gasoline taxes, which support these projects, haven't been adjusted since the 1990s and aren't indexed for inflation. Unless policymakers act, rising construction costs and dwindling funds will lead to more potholes and greater risk of a bridge collapse.

Transportation policy affects nearly every aspect of life in Alabama, from urban traffic jams to rural residents' ability to get health care. Whether a person cares about foreign oil dependency or wants ideas for job creation, transportation policy touches on economic concerns as well as social justice.

Every merchant wants customers to be able to get to the store to do some shopping. Every employer wants workers to be able to get to work on time. And every Alabamian wants to be able to get around, whether the trip is a crucial errand or just a social call.

Transportation is at the core of these overlapping concerns. Yet our current system seems to suggest that if you don't have steady access to a car or truck (along with the money to buy insurance and put gas in it), your time matters quite a bit less.

This is no way to run a state. Elderly Alabamians who can't drive shouldn't be cut off from the rest of society. Folks who can't afford a vehicle shouldn't be forced to rely on family or neighbors to get around. People with disabilities ought to have the option of taking a quick, reliable and reasonably priced bus to their destination. Other places aren't perfect, but many have figured this out and offer mass transit options that create more opportunities for everyone to participate in modern life.

Building and maintaining transportation infrastructure has proved to be a reliable, job-creating economic driver. But Alabama is one of only five states that devote no state money to public transportation.

Without a bit of guidance, the whole subject can be confusing to the average observer: pots of federal money, earmarked gas tax revenue, huge variations in urban and rural needs. Too many of us have become dispirited, accepting the road-and-bridge-only status quo and the heavy fossil fuel dependency that goes with it.

We can do better. We have nowhere to go but up, and a little vision (and some committed resources) can help us grapple with the range of issues confronting Alabama's transportation developers and planners. Understanding the past and present of our state's transportation policy can help us build a better, more connected future for all Alabamians.

Stephen Stetson is a policy analyst for Arise Citizens' Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of 150 congregations and organizations that promote public policies to improve the lives of low-income Alabamians. Email: stephen@alarise.org.