Brown a driving force behind City’s public transit, parking initiatives

single-meta-cal May 17, 2021

If you’ve ever taken a ride on an Orbit or Access bus in Huntsville, you can thank Tommy Brown. If you appreciate the modern convenience of the City’s high-tech parking meters and kiosks, thank him again.

Brown, who retires as Director of Parking & Public Transit later this month, has accomplished much over the course of his 40-year career with Huntsville. But he’ll likely always be known as the man who heralded in public transportation to the Rocket City and modernized public parking.

A portrait of Tommy Brown, outgoing director of Public Transit and Parking

Tommy Brown, who retires as Director of Parking & Public Transit later this month, was instrumental in growing the City’s public transportation and parking offerings.

Ever humble, however, Brown insists his accomplishments were part of a greater team effort.

“Much of the credit goes to the employees,” he said. “Bus drivers, parking enforcement officers and other administrative staff – they are the folks who made it happen. I’ve also had good relationships with other departments because one department can’t do it all by themselves.”

Mayor Tommy Battle praised Brown’s success in growing the City’s public transit and parking offerings.

“Tommy Brown has been a reliable and loyal employee for the City of Huntsville,” he said. “Though his leadership will be missed, he can rest easy knowing his accomplishments provided much-needed transportation to our citizens over the past 40 years. His efforts to open up more downtown lots have helped businesses by simply providing locals and tourists more places to park. He was a faithful servant to the City, and we wish him well in his much-deserved retirement.”

In the beginning

When Brown started working for Huntsville, he didn’t know it would turn into a full-time career. He started as a part-time employee because he was simultaneously earning his master’s from Alabama A&M.

Joe Davis was mayor at the time, and Richard Kramer led the department then known as the Transportation Department.

“The City provided no public transportation at all in 1980, though there was starting to be a push for starting some sort of transportation,” Brown said. “Social services and similar groups needed transportation to dialysis centers, mental health centers and senior centers. That was really what pushed Mayor Davis to authorize creating the Public Transportation Department.”

He is known throughout our department as a man who will give you second and third chances. Tommy will be missed because he is not just a wonderful manager, but also a friend. – Randy Griffith

The early years of the City’s public transportation efforts were lean and consisted mostly of planning for the future. There were some early initiatives, however, including a ride-share program that encouraged carpooling and another that relied on volunteers to drive anyone needing a ride.

“The City purchased a vehicle and volunteers drove it,” Brown said. “That’s really where (public transportation) started. It was designed for seniors, disabled and low-income residents.”

A University of Tennessee study completed in 1990 highlighted the need for public transportation in Huntsville and ultimately led to the first two fixed-bus routes. Today, Huntsville operates 15 Orbit buses on 11 fixed routes.

The same year, the City began operating its paratransit service. Though initially christened Handi-Ride, the service is now known as Access and operates 17 handicapped-accessible vehicles.

A place to park

In 1996, 15 years into Brown’s career with the City, then-Mayor Loretta Spencer appointed Brown as head of the new Parking and Public Transit Department. The promotion allowed Brown to grow public transit while also expanding the City’s public parking offerings. Over the past quarter-century, the City has built five parking garages and opened several surface lots.

“We’ve expanded downtown parking significantly and I’m proud to have been a part of that,” Brown said. “The technology has also changed dramatically.”

New technology has included the use of multi-space meters that allow users to pay via smartphone app, though some still take change. A new parking access system will rely on license plate recognition, so users won’t have to use a key card to enter or exit. Other new technologies rely on cameras for parking enforcement so it’s easier to determine if a vehicle has overstayed its allotted time.

Brown explained parking doesn’t provide a substantial revenue stream for the City, but it does provide enough to cover operating costs and for new meters and technology improvements.

“Parking is a lot like a utility in that it’s necessary for downtown growth,” he said. “Parking enforcement and metered parking is designed to generate turnover, which is crucial for downtown merchants and restaurants.”

Other accomplishments

In addition to growing the City’s transit and parking efforts, Brown worked with City leaders to help secure funds for the Parking and Public Transit facility, co-located with the Huntsville-Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau on Church Street. He’s also excited by plans to build a new public transit facility on Pratt Avenue at the former Sherman concrete plant.

Tommy Brown steps off an Access paratransit bus onto the parking lot at Parking and Public Transit

Tommy Brown takes a step down from an Access paratransit bus. Though initially christened Handi-Ride, Access now operates 17 handicapped-accessible vehicles.

The facility will accommodate public transit operations as well as be a place where people can catch a Greyhound, taxi, Uber and even rent a bicycle. The new hub will also be just a stone’s throw from a rail line in the event Amtrak ever adds Huntsville to its service area.

“I think we’re in a great position to meet future demand. Transportation services will grow as population density grows,” Brown said. “I think we’ll see more people leave their cars at home and ride the bus for convenience. There’s a lot more discretionary riders than there were 20 years ago, particularly younger people.”

Looking ahead

When Brown formally retires May 31, he’ll hand his keys over to Quisha Riche, who previously served as deputy executive director at the Huntsville Housing Authority.

“She’s a very smart young woman who has a lot of experience dealing with the federal, state and local government,” Brown said, adding that experience will be crucial when applying for federal funding. “She knows the community and the people, so she’s coming in with a really good knowledge and foundation for how to improve public transit and parking.”

Brown, meanwhile, looks forward to spending time with his family and the great outdoors. Jeanne, his wife of 40 years, has a big “honey-do” list. His two adult daughters also have projects for their dad.

“I’m not an expert at anything related to home improvement, but I enjoy it,” he said.

Praise from co-workers

Brown won’t brag on his own accomplishments, but his co-workers have plenty of admiration for Brown and what they consider his “smart approach” to leadership.

Public Transit Manager John Autry praised Brown’s mantra of always “doing the smart thing.” Even though Brown supported expansion and growth, Autry explained Brown only did so where it made sense and when the data supported it.

“Back in 2009-2011, many small city transit systems were forced to cut services and raised fares. Huntsville did neither thanks to Tommy’s smart conservative approach over the years,” Autry said.

Fixed-Route Coordinator Randy Griffith has only worked for Brown, whom he described as being honest, fair and always willing to listen. Griffith said Brown is also a caring and charitable man who often helps those in need.

“He is known throughout our department as a man who will give you second and third chances,” Griffith said of his boss. “Tommy will be missed because he is not just a wonderful manager, but also a friend.”