Most major metropolitan cities in the U.S. share a commonality – public transportation. From New York City’s subways to San Francisco’s cable cars, moving residents and visitors around a city is a crucial public service.
Since 1990, Huntsville – now the largest City in Alabama – has provided public transportation through its fixed-route and paratransit services. Ridership has risen steadily, but City leaders believe those numbers could boom as more college students and young professionals shed car payments in lieu of public transit or ride-share services.
For our latest installment in The BIG Picture campaign, we’ll take a deeper look at Huntsville’s transit offerings and what’s on the horizon.
Assessing our future
Five years ago, when The BIG Picture Master Plan was finalized, stakeholders expressed an interest in improved transportation infrastructure, including public transit. Today, the City operates 15 fixed-route buses that span 11 routes, Monday through Saturday.
Coincidentally, City planners’ re-evaluation of The BIG Picture is occurring as Huntsville Transit officials update their strategic plan. A series of public meetings in September will solicit feedback from the community on how the City can improve its transit service.
“We really are in a unique position to assess not only how we fit into Huntsville’s future, but also take a holistic look at our current operation,” said Quisha Bryant, director of Huntsville Parking & Public Transportation Department. “That’s why it’s important for us to understand the public’s expectations because that feedback will be our roadmap for the next few years.”
Huntsville Transit has made positive operational progress over the past two years. A partnership between Huntsville Transit and Token Transit allows riders to prepay for fares on their smartphones. Colleges and companies can also use the app to purchase bulk fares for students and employees.
A new transfer station set to open in 2024 will accommodate larger buses to meet growing needs. Bryant said while the station will enable expanded service, feedback from the upcoming meetings will help guide when and where those changes are implemented.
In addition to featuring 14 covered bus bays, the station is being designed with safety in mind. It will include a perimeter security fence and an upgraded video surveillance system. The station will also feature real-time arrival signs for buses and modern signage.
The station will have air-conditioned waiting areas for Orbit customers and serve as a drop-off and pick-up site for ride-share services like Lyft and Uber.
The new station is made possible by a $12.5 million Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant that will cover 80% of the costs of the new station, with the City covering the remainder. The partnership between the City and federal government is an example of how successful collaboration benefits public transportation. Collaboration between multiple entities will be critical as The BIG Picture calls for the implementation of Bus-Rapid Transit (BRT) corridors.
Dennis Madsen, Huntsville’s Manager of Long-Range and Urban Planning, said BRT corridors are realistically 5-10 years from reality, but will provide a significant boost to the City’s public transit offerings. BRT routes don’t include stops at every small bus shelter, but instead stop at larger stations (e.g., college campuses, industrial parks or downtown).
BRTs will also include a dedicated traffic lane on major thoroughfares and the ability to “queue jump” or have traffic signal priority at intersections to move passengers quickly through congested areas.
Madsen said BRT corridors are a natural predecessor to light rail, but he added serious talk of rail service is still years into the future. It will also depend on buy-in from the City, state, Huntsville-Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and regional collaborators who have a viable city-to-city rail plan.
“If we establish BRT corridors and our transit service continues to grow, it will be easier to take that step toward light rail,” he said. “I think it will be more than 20 years in the making.”
Growth will be driven by community demand, too. For serious consideration to be given to BRT corridors and light rail, Madsen said, the public will have to “Dump the Pump and Try Transit.”
“If we’re going to grow, we need community buy-in,” he said. “We need residents to embrace the existing system and become stakeholders through both their patronage and their feedback.”