If a local city councilman has his way, Prichard and other small communities in Mobile County will be able to make their own decisions when it comes to mass transit.
Funding will be the biggest obstacle facing the proposal Prichard City Councilman Lorenzo Martin has been working on since the Mobile City Council voted to cut funding to WAVE Transit routes in Prichard, Chickasaw and other areas of the county in 2016.
“To all municipalities outside of Mobile, we have a responsibility to the handicapped, elderly, women and children and all those that are in need of and use public transportation,” Martin wrote in a letter. “I am proposing a countywide public transportation authority that will work and speak on behalf of the citizens of Mobile County.”
Trying to find the needed revenue to either replace the previous WAVE routes or add a new service would be “daunting” for any single municipality to take on, Martin wrote. “Together, we can work on [an] authority that will better serve our community and the rural areas for years to come.”
The Mobile City Council cut almost $700,000 from WAVE’s budget in fall 2015, before officially cutting the routes in 2016. In a phone interview June 12, Martin said he expects the authority would have to spend from $700,000 to $1 million to re-establish the WAVE routes in Prichard and other portions of the county.
“Currently, if we ignore it, people are walking miles to work or to get a ride,” Martin said.
The only WAVE stops in Prichard are at the hub, which is paid for with federal funding.
“The buses come as far as the hub,” Martin said. “It’s impossible for three of the city’s districts to benefit from the hub.”
If the proposed authority, on the other hand, wanted to start its own service, the capital and infrastructure costs would be much more than that, South Alabama Regional Planning Commission (SARPC) Transportation Director Kevin Harrison said.
Although Harrison said he supports a regional transit system, he researched on his own how much could be raised through a gasoline tax in Prichard, Saraland and Chickasaw, but said it wouldn’t produce enough revenue to even re-establish the WAVE routes. The funding for such a plan would most likely have to come from another source, according to Harrison.
In addition to having to buy buses, Harrison said, other startup costs, such as maintenance, would be too great to overcome for a newly formed county authority.
The county is eligible for roughly $1 million per year in federal money for rural transit, Harrison said, but Prichard by itself wouldn’t qualify because it is part of a larger urban grant — spanning from Creola to Bayou La Batre — given to Mobile County for WAVE. Since the county doesn’t lay claim to the grant, it is redistributed statewide, Harrison said.
One big problem was the city of Mobile was funding the lion’s share of WAVE Transit, Harrison said. Unlike the Baldwin Rural Area Transportation System (BRATS), where one-third is funded by local subsidy, 50 percent to 60 percent of WAVE’s funding came from Mobile, Harrison said; no other municipalities paid for the service.
“That’s part of the problem,” Harrison said.
Martin said BRATS is successful, in part, because it can schedule pickups and avoid running empty buses along routes during non-peak hours. He also said the Prichard routes cut by the Mobile City Council and WAVE’s parent company, McDonald Transit, benefited the city in the long run. He said Prichard residents who took the bus did most of their shopping in Mobile.
“For the most essential things, you have to come to Mobile,” Martin said. “For so many different things, you have to spend money in Mobile. Mobile looked at the budget and made it a cut-and-dry issue. They didn’t consider the money spent.”
Harrison agreed having the routes in place probably benefited Mobile, to a point.
“It’s a real situation because people in Prichard spent money in Mobile,” Harrison said. “There’s always been this national figure that for every dollar invested in transit there’s eight dollars given back. Mobile is the only city investing that dollar.”
Transportation countywide will become more of an issue as distribution centers for Wal-Mart and Amazon come on line in the near future, Harrison said.
Two years ago, SARPC commissioned a WAVE Transit development plan, Harrison said. Recommendations from transit consultants at the time included a change to a 30-minute headway on routes and fixed routes to the Mobile Regional Airport and McGowin Park, among other things. Instead of investing the $6 million needed to implement a number of recommendations, the city cut most of the routes outside the city limits.
“It’s not operating fairly,” Martin said of WAVE and Mobile. “If you’re going to be the mother of all municipalities, you have to act like it.”