Arise’s Carol Gundlach discusses our thoughts on how Alabama legislators plan to allocate the rest of the state’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money. Gov. Kay Ivey called a special session on ARPA funding shortly after lawmakers returned Tuesday to begin the 2023 regular session.
Issue: Public Transportation
Fresh opportunities to push for a better Alabama
The Alabama Legislature will welcome 37 new lawmakers to its halls when its 2023 regular session begins March 7. Alabama Arise sees this as an opportunity to educate new legislators and identify new allies on issues of importance to our members. We urge folks to join us in calling for change, including at Arise Legislative Day on April 11.
Eliminate the state grocery tax
In early February, 11% of Alabama households said they sometimes or often didn’t have enough food to eat. And those hunger challenges are even more severe in communities of color. More than 23% of Black Alabamians and 13.6% of Hispanic Alabamians said they sometimes or often didn’t have enough food.
Untaxing groceries would help families across Alabama keep food on the table. As we have for more than two decades, Arise once again will support bills this year to remove the state’s 4% sales tax on groceries. We also will support replacing the grocery tax revenue by limiting or ending a tax loophole for the wealthiest households. This legislation by Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, and Rep. Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery, would empower Alabama to untax groceries while protecting funding for public schools.
Expand Medicaid to close the health coverage gap
For nearly a decade, Alabama has been outside looking in on a good deal. While hundreds of thousands of Alabamians continue to struggle without health insurance, state leaders have failed to expand Medicaid. Alabama is one of just 11 states that has yet to expand Medicaid. And that inaction has left more than 220,000 Alabamians in a health coverage gap.
Fifteen rural hospitals in Alabama are at imminent risk of closing this year if state leaders don’t act soon to protect health care access. Gov. Kay Ivey should act swiftly to expand Medicaid herself, but the Legislature’s support also will be vital. Arise will keep working to educate lawmakers and the public on the economic, budgetary and humanitarian benefits of Medicaid expansion.
Take bold steps to reform our criminal justice system
Legislators have an opportunity and an obligation to make strides in solving the many problems within Alabama’s criminal justice system. This issue has added urgency as Alabama faces a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit alleging unconstitutional prison conditions.
Many avenues for progress exist. Arise will urge lawmakers to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for debt-based reasons. We will advocate for reform of the state “three-strikes” law, known as the Habitual Felony Offender Act. And we will support a bill to require the jury to be unanimous before imposing the death penalty.
Address housing and transportation needs
State House insiders expect the Legislature to go into a special session this spring to decide how to use remaining federal funds under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). From the start, Arise has taken the position that Alabama should use some of its ARPA funds to jump-start public transportation and help thousands find an affordable place to call home.
During the probable special session, we will continue to uplift the need for these investments in the people of Alabama. Learn more at alarise.org/arpatoolkit.
Budget priorities for the people
Two weeks before the Alabama Legislature’s 2023 regular session, lawmakers, lobbyists and advocates packed into the State House in late February for the annual joint legislative budget hearings. One might call it the Super Bowl for budget nerds.
After years of scarcity, both Alabama budgets are starting out with a revenue surplus. There’s $351 million in “excess” revenue for the General Fund, and $2.7 billion for the Education Trust Fund. That’s not even counting the remaining $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds still awaiting allocation.
What we heard at this year’s budget hearings was not surprising. Public services like education, health care, mental health and supportive services need more resources after years of underinvestment. State agencies are struggling with worker shortages and the consequences of underfunding – and understaffing – critical programs. It’s no surprise that lawmakers heard a long, detailed list of opportunities to meet these needs. Most agency heads were clear that new funding can’t fix all of the problems – but it’s a start.
Some lawmakers have floated the idea that this one-time surplus is a sign we need a tax rebate. If that proposal materializes, Arise will be front and center advocating for funds to go directly to low- and moderate-income households bearing the brunt of higher costs. But Arise’s proposal, which comes directly from listening to our members, is a longer-term solution to our upside-down tax code. Our bill to untax groceries would help families keep food on the table while also protecting funding for public schools. It’s a solution that goes beyond just one year to create more foundational and sustainable change.
One concern you may have heard is that nobody has enough workers. Too many Alabamians are still disconnected from the workforce due to missing critical infrastructure investments in child care, public transportation, health care and affordable housing. This year, we’ll be pushing for investments in these supports to help people get and keep work, and to build the healthy and educated workforce Alabama needs.
Our 2023 policy proposals provide that roadmap for change. Expand Medicaid to ensure nobody has to die for lack of preventive care or live in poverty because they have a chronic health condition. Invest in infrastructure to support workers, including child care, housing, public transportation and education. Stop funding public services with punitive fines and fees, and start ensuring the wealthiest Alabamians pay their fair share.
We look forward to seeing you all at our Legislative Day this April. If we continue to stand and work together, we will make significant progress for Alabama.
Public transit, healthy food access among key pathways to increase economic opportunity in Birmingham area, new report finds
Greater Birmingham has experienced a resurgence in economic growth and civic engagement in recent years. But the benefits of this prosperity are not widely shared among everyone living in the region – and a new comprehensive report that Alabama Arise and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) released Thursday shows that people across Jefferson County know it.
The report, Homecoming: The Greater Birmingham Community Speaks on Regional Cooperation and a More Inclusive Economy, includes a professional survey of 1,024 residents of the Greater Birmingham area conducted this year. Three in four residents said the region’s economic resources are not distributed fairly. And only one in four said they are personally included in the Birmingham area’s economic revival.
Economic opportunity and financial vulnerability across Greater Birmingham vary widely by race, gender and geography, the report finds. Homecoming highlights the critical problems facing the region’s residents – and the solutions they want to see. The report defines Greater Birmingham as Jefferson County, the City of Birmingham and 33 other municipalities within Jefferson County.
“The results of this comprehensive study of the issues facing Greater Birmingham residents speak volumes, especially in the wake of the results of the midterms, about where communities stand on the major issues that impact not only Alabama, but our country as a whole,” said Marc Bayard, associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the report’s co-author.
“Alabama’s economy is growing, but ordinary people aren’t seeing the same changes to their bottom line. We see the real-life effects of economic and racial inequality, and we also see the profound need for change in how the government responds to the most urgent needs and concerns of Alabama residents.”
Click here to read the full report.
Policies to promote broadly shared prosperity
The study includes a professional survey of 1,024 Greater Birmingham residents conducted in 2022. It focuses on ensuring broad representation across race, gender, political ideology and geography.
“Too many people are being left behind in Birmingham’s economy these days. The region needs broadly shared prosperity that creates good jobs that provide a living wage and upward mobility,” said Allan M. Freyer, Ph.D., visiting fellow with Alabama Arise and the report’s lead author.
“Our study provides local governments across the Birmingham area with a toolbox of potential strategies for promoting equitable economic growth that benefits everyone. Better transit, access to healthy foods, affordable housing, accountability for development projects, and more local authority are the key to a more prosperous, thriving region.”
- Two-thirds of survey respondents identified transportation – especially lack of public transit – as the top challenge facing Greater Birmingham. The region is one of the country’s most auto-dependent metro areas.
- More than 55% of residents cited lack of access to healthy food in certain neighborhoods as a significant problem.
- Almost 80% of respondents identified rising housing costs as a problem. Another 73% said the same about the overall lack of affordable housing.
- More than 73% of survey respondents rated lack of good jobs as at least somewhat of a problem. This included 82% of Black respondents and 62% of white respondents.
- Nearly 60% of respondents said gaining access to job training programs is a challenge, and those fortunate enough to complete these programs might not find available jobs calling for their new skills.
- More than 60% saw child care as a significant challenge for the region’s economy.
- More than three-quarters of residents want their local government to ensure companies create the jobs they promise in exchange for public subsidies or tax incentives – and require those jobs to pay living wages.
- A supermajority of residents (nearly three in four) oppose preemption (through which states can limit the authority of local governments) and support home rule (where localities are relatively autonomous). Large majorities of Black and white residents alike said local governments should be able to set their own minimum wage.
“Hope for a brighter future is a value shared by people of every race and in every part of the Greater Birmingham area,” Alabama Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “For prosperity to be shared more broadly, residents are telling us we need to invest in recruiting high-quality, better-paying jobs. We can support workers in getting to those jobs with better public transportation and stronger investments in child care and affordable housing.”
To capture a range of ideas and perspectives effectively, the Arise and IPS report:
- Commissioned a professional survey in 2022 of 1,024 Greater Birmingham residents. The goal was to understand the challenges residents are facing and the policy solutions they support.
- Conducted 12 focus groups with key categories of stakeholders to learn more about the biggest challenges facing Greater Birmingham residents. Researchers engaged approximately 80 people, including corporate leaders, business owners, faith leaders across the racial spectrum, grassroots activists, leaders of women’s groups, youth development groups, and other nonprofit leaders working in various aspects of equitable development across the area.
- Conducted two dozen one-on-one interviews with community leaders to hear their concerns and proposed solutions. These included staff at local governments, regional foundations, regionwide civic initiatives, grassroots activists, policy advocates, nonprofit leaders, neighborhood association presidents and local developers.
Alabama Arise unveils 2023 roadmap for change in Alabama
Expanding Medicaid and ending the state sales tax on groceries will remain top goals on Alabama Arise’s 2023 legislative agenda. More than 400 members voted on Arise’s issue priorities in recent days after the organization’s annual meeting Saturday. The seven issues chosen were:
- Adequate budgets for human services like education, health care and child care, including Medicaid expansion to make health coverage affordable for all Alabamians.
- Tax reform, including untaxing groceries and capping the state’s upside-down deduction for federal income taxes, which overwhelmingly benefits rich households.
- Voting rights, including automatic universal voter registration, removal of barriers to voting rights restoration for disenfranchised Alabamians, and other policies to expand and protect multiracial democracy in the state.
- Criminal justice reform, including retroactive application of state sentencing guidelines and repeal of the Habitual Felony Offender Act.
- Death penalty reform, including a law to require juries to be unanimous in any decision to impose a death sentence.
- Public transportation to empower Alabamians with low incomes to stay connected to work, school, health care and their communities.
- Payday and title lending reform to protect consumers from getting trapped in debt.
“Arise believes in dignity, equity and justice for everyone,” Alabama Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “Our 2023 issue priorities reflect the need to work together to break down policy barriers that keep people in poverty, and that disproportionately harm Black and Hispanic Alabamians. We must build a healthier, more just and more inclusive future for our state.”
The time is right to expand Medicaid in Alabama
One essential step toward a healthier future for Alabama is to ensure everyone can afford the health care they need. Arise members believe Medicaid expansion is a policy path to that destination, and research provides strong support for that position.
Expanding Medicaid would reduce racial health disparities and remove financial barriers to health care for more than 340,000 Alabamians. It would support thousands of new jobs across the state. And most importantly, it would save hundreds of lives every year.
Medicaid expansion would ensure health coverage for more than 220,000 Alabamians caught in the coverage gap. These residents earn too much to qualify for the state’s bare-bones Medicaid program but too little to afford private plans. Expansion also would benefit another 120,000 Alabamians who are stretching to pay for coverage they cannot readily afford.
Alabama is one of only 12 states that have not yet expanded Medicaid to cover adults with low incomes. But an Alabama Arise poll earlier this year found that more than seven in 10 Alabamians (71.5%) support Medicaid expansion. That figure included 65.8% of Republican voters.
“Medicaid expansion would boost our economy and improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Alabamians,” Hyden said. “It’s time for Gov. Kay Ivey and lawmakers to say yes to the generous federal incentives for Medicaid expansion. Making this crucial investment in Alabamians’ well-being now will make our state better for decades to come.”
Why and how Alabama should untax groceries
Alabama’s state grocery tax makes it harder for people with low incomes to make ends meet. The tax adds hundreds of dollars a year to the cost of a basic necessity for families. And most states have abandoned it: Alabama is one of only three states with no sales tax break on groceries.
The state sales tax on groceries brings in roughly 6% of the Education Trust Fund’s annual revenue. But lawmakers have a path available to end the state grocery tax while protecting funding for public schools. Arise will continue to support legislation to untax groceries and replace the revenue by capping the state income tax deduction for federal income taxes (FIT).
The FIT deduction is a skewed tax break that overwhelmingly benefits the richest households. It is also exceedingly rare: Alabama is one of only two states to allow this deduction in full. The FIT deduction and grocery tax are two policies that contribute heavily to Alabama’s upside-down tax system. On average, Alabamians with low and moderate incomes must pay twice as much of what they make in state and local taxes as the richest households do.
“By untaxing groceries and capping the FIT deduction, lawmakers can make Alabama’s tax system more just and equitable,” Hyden said. “This plan would empower more families to keep food on the table while also protecting funding for our public schools. The Legislature should seize this opportunity to make life better for every Alabamian.”
ARPA 101: How the American Rescue Plan Act can build a more equitable Alabama
The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched families, hospitals, schools, businesses and food banks across Alabama to their limits. Like tens of millions of other Americans, local and state officials have had to adapt to new challenges and respond to existing health and economic challenges exacerbated by the pandemic over the last two years.
Congress reacted to these challenges by passing several major recovery packages to provide relief to individuals, states and local governments. The most recent package was the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a $1.9 trillion measure enacted in March 2021. One key provision of ARPA is known as State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF). Congress allocated this money to help states and localities address the impact of the pandemic and promote equitable recovery.
How Alabama has used ARPA funding so far – and the opportunities that remain
Of the $195 billion of SLFRF money appropriated to states, Alabama will receive more than $2.1 billion. State and local governments can spend these dollars in four ways, according to the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Final Rule released in January 2022:
- Replace lost public sector revenue.
- Support the COVID-19 public health and economic response.
- Provide premium pay for eligible workers performing essential work.
- Invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
To date, Alabama has allocated more than $1.1 billion to various programs and projects through three special sessions. Lawmakers allocated $480 million for prison construction and health care during the first two sessions in September and November 2021. The Legislature appropriated another $772 million during the third special session in January 2022. Legislators devoted that money to a range of projects, including broadband, water and wastewater infrastructure and rural hospitals.
The Legislature has yet to appropriate the remaining $1 billion in state ARPA recovery funds. But legislators may return this summer or fall for a special session focused on the use of those funds. Alabama Arise is encouraging lawmakers to invest some of that money in affordable housing, public transportation and food security infrastructure. Each of those investments would provide long-term improvements in economic opportunity and quality of life for people across Alabama.
Top priorities: Affordable housing, public transportation and food security
The COVID-19 recession caused a wave of evictions and foreclosures across Alabama. The state could help address its housing shortage and resulting homelessness by providing $25 million for the state Housing Trust Fund. This investment would create and support jobs across the state. It also would reduce Alabama’s shortfall of more than 76,000 affordable homes for people with low incomes.
Essential work supports can help more Alabamians reenter and stay in the job market during and after the pandemic. One critical support is reliable transportation to and from work, school, child care or medical care. Legislators can help strengthen communities and expand economic opportunity by investing $20 million in the state Public Transportation Trust Fund. Arise partnered with 81 other organizations in June 2022 to urge lawmakers to take that important step forward.
Hunger was already a large and perpetual problem across Alabama even before the pandemic. Sudden income loss, rising prices and occasional shortages have made it much more difficult for many people to feed their children and families. Alabama’s food banks remain essential to feeding those in need, even as many have faced staff and volunteer shortages. Lawmakers can help ease this strain by distributing $5 million to the state’s food banks. This funding would empower food banks to maintain services by replacing and improving critical infrastructure like equipment, fleets and warehouses.
ARPA funding for affordable housing, public transportation and food security infrastructure will make life better for the Alabamians hit hardest by COVID-19 and the economic downturn it caused. And these investments will go a long way toward helping create a more equitable and prosperous future for every Alabamian.
For more on the American Rescue Plan Act, please visit our ARPA toolkit.
82 Alabama groups urge Ivey, legislators to fund public transportation using ARPA funds
Lawmakers should jump-start public transportation across Alabama with an allocation of $20 million from the state’s remaining federal COVID-19 relief money, according to a letter that 82 churches and organizations across the state sent Wednesday to Gov. Kay Ivey and legislators. Alabama Arise is among the groups that co-signed the letter.
The organizations asked Gov. Kay Ivey and the Legislature to invest $20 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds in the state Public Transportation Trust Fund. That amount is just 2% of the state’s roughly $1 billion of remaining unallocated ARPA funds.
Alabama is one of only three states with no state funding for public transportation, the letter says. Lawmakers created the state Public Transportation Trust Fund in 2018, but it has yet to receive state funding. And the consequences of that state inaction have grown in recent years, the letter says.
“The COVID-19 pandemic only worsened the harm resulting from lack of state support for public transportation,” the letter says. “We know robust investments in public transit will provide strong benefits for people across Alabama. Greater access to work, school, child care and medical care are just a few examples of how public transit is critical not only for an individual’s quality of life but for the state’s economic development and prosperity.”
More public transit funding means fewer service barriers
Investments in public transportation would expand economic opportunity, advance racial equity and strengthen community connections, a recent Arise report found. Arise’s survey of public transit systems in 42 of Alabama’s 67 counties showed how additional funding would empower those systems to lift many service barriers.
“State public transportation funding is an investment in a stronger economy and healthier communities,” Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “This investment would allow Alabama to draw down more federal infrastructure dollars. It would allow systems to hire more drivers and add more routes. It would enable them to extend operating hours and modernize technology. And it would bring us closer to the day when all Alabamians can get where they need to go when they need to get there.”
Click here to read the full letter from 82 organizations to the governor and legislators.
Alabama Arise, 81 partner groups urge Alabama to fund public transportation
American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) relief funding provides an opportunity for Alabama to jump-start public transportation across the state. Alabama Arise joined 81 partner organizations Wednesday in a letter asking lawmakers to allocate ARPA money to public transportation. The full text of the letter is below.
Dear Governor Ivey, Lieutenant Governor Ainsworth, members of the Cabinet and the Alabama Legislature:
Public transportation creates jobs, improves lives and keeps people connected to their communities. As you consider how to allocate the remaining estimated $1 billion of state funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), we strongly encourage you to support Alabama’s public transportation systems. Specifically, we ask you to invest $20 million of ARPA funds into Alabama’s Public Transportation Trust Fund (PTTF).
The PTTF was established in 2018 but remains unfunded to this day. Alabama is one of only three states that provide no state funding for public transportation. A 1952 constitutional amendment bars the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) from using revenue from the state gas tax or license fees for public transportation, which is how most states fund public transportation. Instead, nearly all money for public transportation in Alabama comes from federal dollars administered by ALDOT.
It is clear to the undersigned organizations that the COVID-19 pandemic only worsened the harm resulting from lack of state support for public transportation. Limited funding has forced some local transit systems to curtail specialized services for riders with disabilities or serious health conditions.
We know robust investments in public transit will provide strong benefits for people across Alabama. Greater access to work, school, child care and medical care are just a few examples of how public transit is critical not only for an individual’s quality of life but for the state’s economic development and prosperity.
We urge you to invest $20 million in the PTTF using ARPA’s designated revenue replacement funds. This move will allow those funds to go even further by matching incoming federal dollars for public transportation. And it will make Alabama a better place to live and work for years to come.
Thank you for your consideration.
82 Alabama community-based organizations:
- AIDS Alabama
- Alabama Arise
- Alabama Black Women’s Roundtable
- Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice
- Alabama Forward
- Alabama Rivers Alliance
- Alabama Rural Ministry
- Alabama State Conference of the NAACP
- All Nations Church of God (Montgomery)
- All Saints Episcopal Church (Mobile)
- Amalgamated Transit Union Local 770
- American Association of University Women Alabama (AAUW)
- American Association of University Women (AAUW) – Huntsville Branch
- Anniston First United Methodist Church – Church & Society Committee
- Baldwin County Trailblazers
- Bay Area Women Coalition, Inc. (Mobile)
- Beloved Community Church, UCC (Birmingham)
- Birmingham Footmad
- Birmingham Friends Meeting (Quakers)
- Bold Goals Coalition (Central Alabama)
- Childcare Resources (Birmingham)
- Christian Methodist Episcopal Church – Birmingham District Lay Leadership
- Church Women United Montgomery
- Citizens’ Climate Lobby – Alabama
- Collaborative Solutions (Birmingham)
- Communities of Transformation
- Community Action Association of Alabama
- Community Enabler (Anniston)
- Eastwood Neighborhood Association (Birmingham)
- Edgewood Presbyterian Church (Homewood)
- Fairhope Unitarian Fellowship
- Faith in Action Alabama
- First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham
- Grace Presbyterian Church, PCUSA (Tuscaloosa)
- Greater Birmingham Ministries
- Gulf Coast Creation Care
- ¡HICA! Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama
- H.I.V.E. Alabama
- Heritage Training and Career Center (Montgomery)
- Holy Comforter Episcopal Church Gadsden Missions Committee
- Hometown Action
- Immanuel Presbyterian Church PCUSA (Montgomery)
- Independent Living Center of Mobile
- Inspire United Appeal Fund Corporation (Mobile)
- Jackson District Women’s Home and Overseas Missionary Society A.M.E. Zion Church
- Jobs to Move America
- League of Women Voters of Alabama
- Lighthouse Community Development Corporation (Mobile)
- Low Income Housing Coalition of Alabama
- Mary’s House Catholic Worker (Birmingham)
- Mission Committee, First Presbyterian Church of Auburn
- Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition
- Monte Sano United Methodist Church – Missions Chair
- NAACP Tuscaloosa Branch
- National Federation of the Blind of Alabama
- Neighborhood Concepts, Inc. (Huntsville)
- North Alabama Peace Network
- One Roof (Birmingham)
- Open Table United Church of Christ (Mobile)
- Ozanam Charitable Pharmacy, Inc. (Mobile)
- Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty
- Sisters of Mercy Alabama
- SPLC Action Fund
- St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (Jacksonville)
- St. Peter AME Church (Montgomery)
- SWEET Alabama (Birmingham)
- Systems Change/Economic Justice Workgroup – Greater Birmingham Ministries
- The Downtown Jimmie Hale Mission (Birmingham)
- The Horizons School (Birmingham)
- The Institute for Community, Youth & Family Services (Birmingham)
- The Right Place, Inc. (Anniston)
- The Sisters (Tuscaloosa)
- Thrive Alabama (Huntsville)
- Transform Alabama
- Transit Citizens Advisory Board (Birmingham)
- Trinity United Methodist Church (Homewood)
- Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham
- Unitarian Universalist Church of Huntsville
- YMBC Civic Forum (Birmingham)
- Youth Towers Incorporated (Birmingham)
Alabama’s road to a better public transportation future
Public transportation is an investment in people, communities, the economy and the environment. Many older adults, individuals with disabilities and people with low incomes need public transit to get to work, seek medical care, buy groceries and more.
By providing state funding for public transportation, Alabama lawmakers can help ensure these freedoms for everyone in our state. They could start by allocating $20 million of the state’s remaining American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to the state Public Transportation Trust Fund.
The Alabama Legislature created the Public Transportation Trust Fund in 2018, but no state funds have been provided for it yet. As a result, the trust fund’s capacity to provide badly needed state matching funds for federal transportation dollars has languished. This inaction has left Alabama with a truncated and inadequate public transportation system.
Alabama Arise surveyed public transportation systems in 42 of our state’s 67 counties this spring to identify service barriers. The findings were clear: State funding and the resulting additional federal dollars would help lift many of these barriers. Alabama lawmakers should provide this crucial funding at the next available opportunity.
Public transportation is a critical unmet need for Alabama
“There is such a need [for public transportation], and people love it. Sometimes I ride and try to blend in so people don’t know who I am, and I hear people say how glad they are that the program came along. People are so grateful for the service.” – a south Alabama public transit director.
The Alabamians who use public transportation services the most are people with low incomes, older adults, people with disabilities, and people of color, according to the systems we surveyed. Alabama’s poverty rate is 16%. Of our state’s total population of slightly more than 5 million, 16.2% have a disability, 16.9% are over age 65 and 35.9% are people of color.
By contrast, only 0.3% of Alabama residents – or about one in 300 – use public transportation to get to work. And the average travel time to work in Alabama is about 25 minutes. A look at these numbers leads to a simple conclusion: Alabama is not doing enough to provide public transportation to those who need it the most.
State funding barriers undermine public transportation
“Maintaining vehicles with high mileage is hard, especially in rural counties. It might take 40 minutes to just go get someone.” – a south Alabama public transit director.
Public transportation systems require adequate and stable funding to operate. However, Alabama is one of only three states (along with Hawaii and Nevada) that provide no state money for public transportation. A 1952 constitutional amendment bars the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) from using revenue from the state gas tax or license fees for public transportation.
Nearly all money for public transportation in Alabama comes from federal dollars administered by ALDOT. Multiple federal COVID-19 recovery packages, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), temporarily provided additional money for many of Alabama’s public transportation systems. These funds will expire soon, but the need for public transportation services will remain.
Counties again will have to rely on the usual federal programs and grants along with local funds for public transportation. How these dollars are allocated and distributed to county transit authorities is a complicated process that makes it difficult to ensure they receive the funds their systems need.
Further, local transit systems must provide matching funds (state or local non-federal dollars) to receive federal transportation funds. Many counties receive matching funds from contracts with social services, other local organizations, county commissions, municipalities and other local sources.
Non-federal match requirements vary by program and can range from 10% to 50% of transit purchases or operations. Forty percent of surveyed systems said non-federal match is a problem for them or could be in the future.
Availability and access barriers are widespread
“Decrease in funding has affected the ability for us to transport individuals who have been using services for years. With many, this has large consequences – like dialysis patients, because they have to get to appointments.” – a central Alabama public transit director
Most Alabama counties only offer public transportation services Monday through Friday, our survey found. Counties with weekend services only provide transportation on Saturdays and on a limited basis, such as only in urban areas or with restricted hours. Most county systems are unable to provide weekend services due to lack of resources.
Many counties do not offer public transportation services after 4 p.m., and just as many do not begin providing transportation until 8 a.m. This scheduling creates a gap for people who need transportation to and from work for shifts ending after 4 p.m. or starting at or before 8 a.m. Almost no public transportation systems in Alabama provide services past 6 p.m., so night-shift workers are unable to get a ride to and from work.
Because of limited funding, some systems have had to curtail specialized services for riders with disabilities or serious health conditions. Some systems struggle to afford wheelchair-accessible equipment. One system reported it had to end several contracts with local organizations serving older adults or people with disabilities because it couldn’t afford to provide services. Other systems are often unable to offer more than basic wheelchair accessibility.
Systems said they struggle to find and keep bus drivers because they cannot pay competitive wages. For these systems, the lack of drivers means they cannot afford to run on any weekends or past 4 p.m., or they must limit the number of routes provided.
The need for technology upgrades
“We need to have more tech, take cards on the buses, get away from cash, GPS on the buses.” – a north Alabama public transit director
Ride scheduling processes for many public transportation systems are outdated and complicated. Most systems still use call-in systems where riders have to schedule a pickup at least 24 to 48 hours in advance.
More efficient options exist. In an effort to streamline services and increase accessibility, Baldwin County’s transit system uses a downloadable app to schedule rides. In February, the county reported 42% of users used the app rather than calling to make an appointment.
Alabama needs updated technology to operate its public transportation systems more effectively. But this technology costs money, and it will require state funding to pull down federal dollars for modern technology.
New technology also would help when it comes to rider fees. Many counties struggle with payment of bus fees, either because of exact cash payment requirements or residents’ inability to pay even minimal fees. Alternative payment methods (payment via website, app, card reader, etc.) would lessen the burden for riders and drivers. Again, this would require purchasing additional equipment.
A better, more connected future
“My vision for public transportation is for everyone to have access to safe, reliable and timely transportation with no limitations as to when or to where.” – a north Alabama public transit director
“What would be your vision for your system if you had the resources?” That was one of the final questions on our survey of county transit system directors. The responses painted a picture of an Alabama where everyone can get where they need to go. Many directors said they would expand services by hiring more drivers and buying more vehicles. Some said new funding would allow them to purchase new technology. And others highlighted their desire to extend riding days and times and expand their travel area.
Our state’s lack of state public transportation funding makes maintaining and using public transit incredibly difficult for people who use the systems. And it likely discourages many people from trying to use public transit at all.
Alabama deserves better. State lawmakers should invest $20 million from the remaining American Rescue Plan Act funds into Alabama’s Public Transportation Trust Fund. By doing so, our state can empower local transportation systems to provide the services that their riders need.
These investments in public transportation would expand economic opportunity and advance racial equity. And they would help build an Alabama where everyone can stay connected and reach their full potential.
About the authors
Elaine Burdeshaw was an intern at Alabama Arise in spring 2022. Turner Griffin was an intern at Arise in fall 2021 and spring 2022. They completed this report during their internships. Both received their Master of Social Work degrees from the University of Alabama in May 2022.
Last updated June 16, 2022.
Arise legislative recap: Jan. 25, 2022
The Alabama Legislature has stepped away briefly from its regular session for a special session on federal COVID-19 relief funds. Arise executive director Robyn Hyden provides an overview of how lawmakers plan to allocate the next portion of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money this week. And she explains why affordable housing and public transportation should be among the top priorities for the next round of ARPA funding.