Mar 12 2007

Editorial: Another D.C. trip, another scolding

Birmingham News

THE ISSUE: It shouldn't take a pep talk from Sen. Richard Shelby to get area leaders to do something about public transit.

Once again, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby has scolded Birmingham area leaders for failing to take advantage of federal dollars for public transit projects, and once again the scolding is well-deserved.

The $87 million that Shelby dangled for many years in front of the region to expand transit services is gone. Only a few million of it was used. The rest went elsewhere, to other cities.

That's the real shame. We turn away millions in federal dollars because we don't want to put up the local match, which is as low as 20 percent - the equivalent of getting a $4 return for every $1 we invest.

Of course, federal transportation dollars don't come out of thin air. They're taxes, mostly on gasoline. Most go to build and maintain highway and bridges; some go to public transit. So, the gas taxes we pay in Alabama are helping cities like Los Angeles and Dallas build and expand their transit systems, even as transit service here goes wanting.

That's just plain dumb. Shelby knows it, and he's told us so over and over again. "My message to you is that it's 2007, and you're losing time and you're losing opportunities," the Republican senator said Wednesday.

The occasion was the annual trip of area business and government leaders to Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce. During the trip, they meet with congressional leaders to discuss priorities for the region.

This year, the chamber's priorities include federal funding for medical research at UAB, health care and transportation projects that include money to complete the final leg of Corridor X, a northern beltline and transit.

On transit, the holdup is here, not in Washington. Our local elected officials simply lack the political will and courage to pass a dedicated funding source necessary to take advantage of federal funding.

That has to change. Friday, at 8:30 a.m. at Vulcan Park, the monthly meeting of elected officials called by state Sen. Jabo Waggoner will again tackle the issue of transportation. In their January meeting, officials gave the go-ahead to prepare legislation that would lay the groundwork for a statewide 10-cent gasoline tax increase. Counties would determine how half the money would be spent; Jefferson County's share would go to expand transit services.

Since then, however, Gov. Bob Riley and some legislative leaders have spoken against the proposal. It's uncertain whether elected officials will stick with the plan.

That's where will and courage come in. Officials know something must be done. The current bus system doesn't come close to meeting the needs of commuters or those dependent on transit. Improving bus service and providing more options to commuters will require more money.

Elected officials need to agree on a plan, even if it's not the 10-cent gas tax, then unite behind it and fight for it. For too many years, leaders have failed, and the region has nothing to show for it.

It shouldn't take an annual scolding or even a pep talk from Richard Shelby to drive that point home.