Some of the things that prompt us to most proudly pat ourselves on the back as a community can, ironically, also be a challenge for aspects of the City of Huntsville.
Short commute times? Check.
Low population density? Check.
Abundance of free or inexpensive parking? Check.
Good street system? Check.
“All those things are wonderful for quality of life,” says Tommy Brown, Director of Parking and Transportation for the City of Huntsville. “But they’re challenges to an effective public transit system.”
Those aspects mean that Huntsville’s public transportation system is not the preferred option for most of the city’s commuters. With relatively short trips to work – an average of 18 minutes – most choose to drive their own cars.
Thus, the transit system has a sharp focus elsewhere.
“What we’ve done is try to target our transit resources to the folks that need the service,” Brown says. “That’s primarily senior citizens, the disabled community, people who have lower and moderate income and who are working service jobs. We’ve tried to target our transportation resources to meet the needs of those that transportation is a struggle for.”
Huntsville’s public transportation serves some 4,000 passengers a day with its two different services.
Huntsville Shuttle has 12 traditional bus routes. Two of those routes run every 30 minutes, the other every hour. Passengers transfer route-to-route at the station at Church Street and Cleveland Avenue. The fare is $1 for one-way, but just 50 cents for those 65 and older, disabled citizens, students and children under age six.
The routes are strategically designed, with stops at grocery stores, big-box stores, the medical district and areas where many passengers work or shop. The on-time performance is “upwards of 90 to 95 percent,” Brown says.
Handi-Ride, with 17 smaller buses dedicated to serving the elderly and disabled, is the second part of the transportation department. Riders must call the transit office in advance to request transportation, with $2 one-way fares.
“The majority of those are dialysis, doctor’s appointments, life-sustaining things that are critical,” Brown says. “It provides some independence for folks who can’t drive but really need those services.”
Huntsville Shuttle and Handi-Ride buses are equipped to adequately handle the physically challenged, with wheelchair access and other assistance.
Ticket to Ride
Some 60 percent of the funding for the transit system comes from the federal government through the gas tax. The rest comes from the city budget and fares.
That puts a crimp on things. Huntsville Shuttle runs from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m. (the last route leaves at 6 p.m.) on weekdays. Brown hears requests for extended hours – many riders work service jobs in stores and restaurants on which they work until 9 p.m. or later – and weekends. That’s just not financially feasible right now, Brown says.
“Mayor Battle and the City Council and our department are in agreement there are things we need to do to improve the system,” Brown says. “The issue is the funding to do it.”
As Huntsville grows and attracts people moving from larger cities where they were accustomed to public transportation, Brown sees a demand to expand routes and services for the more traditional commuter.
The transportation and planning departments are “exploring possibilities” of a core route from downtown Huntsville through the UAH campus to Cummings Research Park, into Madison and to companies west of Huntsville and to the airport. It would use a larger bus and ideally have a fixed lane for bus traffic only. Still, that’s probably 10 years into the future.
Farther into the future would be light rail, such as MARTA in Atlanta. But the low population density and other conveniences don’t indicate any immediate need for planning that.
“We’re fortunate,” Brown says. “I hear questions about why we don’t have a bigger system. But the reason we don’t is because we have all those other things for quality of life, which is why people come to Huntsville.”
Huntsville’s public transportation system’s role is to best serve now the people who need it the most – and to envision a future where most people will need it.