Light rail

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The idea of developing light rail transportation in Birmingham has been proposed as a means to both reduce traffic congestion as well as the region's air quality. Light rail refers to modern streetcar/tram systems with rapid transit-style features that usually use electric rail cars operating mostly in private rights-of-way separated from other traffic; but sometimes, if necessary, mixed with other traffic in city streets. Within Birmingham area, various proposals have been presented for the implementation of either a light rail network or heritage streetcars within the city.

MAPS/BARTA proposal

As part of the 1997 proposal developed by the Birmingham Area Regional Transit Authority (BARTA) and eventually incorporated as part of the MAPS referendum, the prospect of development of a light rail network in Birmingham was first established. By 1998, Region 2020 called for the development of a light rail network as part of their 34 goals for the region as part of their 2020 plan.

With light rail being identified as a need in the development of a more comprehensive transportation system within the region, in early 1998 Birmingham leaders lobbied Senator Richard Shelby for a $1 million appropriation to conduct a feasibility study for light rail in Birmingham. By May, Birmingham would learn that Senator Shelby was successful in appropriating $87.5 million to both study and potentially partially build a light rail system. With funding in place, city leaders again emphasized the importance of developing a light rail network in reducing congestion, improving air quality and to provide another transit option for city residents to utilized in reporting to jobs in the suburban areas. The funding was approved by Congress as part of a Senate Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee spending bill, and signed into law by President Clinton in July 1998.

By July, BARTA developed preliminary plans for a 13.5 mile line costing $340 million to complete utilizing both the federally appropriated funds, additional revenue from the MAPS proposal in addition to lobbying for additional funding to complete the project. BARTA envisioned this "Start-up" line to run along I-20/I-59 through downtown Birmingham to the Birmingham International Airport. BARTA also noted at this time that the key to successfully implementing light rail was dependent on an overhaul of the existing MAX bus network. The MAPS proposal, which included the light rail element, was defeated that August.

Following MAPS defeat

Although the MAPS proposal was defeated, planning for a light rail system continued as a result of the guaranteed federal funding for the development of such a system within Birmingham. As such, the Birmingham Regional Planning Commission would spend $150,000 on a feasibility study developed by outside consultants. By January 1999 private consultants unveiled four proposed routes for a light rail network within the region. The 10-mile corridor was estimated to cost $150 million to complete, excluding the purchase of the actual rail cars. These four routes were:

By March, the consultants refined the proposed light rail routes. These alignments would all terminate in downtown Birmingham and included routes:

  • along Interstate 59, either in the median or outside the roadway, through Roebuck
  • along a CSX rail line in southwest Birmingham through Fairfield and Bessemer
  • along both Interstate 65 and U.S. Highway 31 through Hoover
  • along U.S. 280 through Homewood and Mountain Brook

By July, the consultants revised the figure for completing an initial line in Birmingham from between $170 million to $230 million. The revised figures were a result of developing more refined routes for the proposed network.

  • A 12-mile line along U.S. 280 would cost $177 million to construct and $4 million annually to operate.
  • A 15-mile line along U.S. 31 and part of I-65 would cost $181 million to build and $5.1 million to operate.
  • An 18-mile line, which was to include an 8-mile extension to the Birmingham International Airport, along Interstate 59, would cost $233 million to build and $6.9 million to operate.
  • A 17-mile line from downtown to Bessemer would cost $171 million to build and $6.9 million to operate.

The proposals following the MAPS defeat never garnered enough local support to secure a required $17 million local match to release the $87 million in federally-appropriated funding.

Birmingham Regional Transportation Alternatives Analysis

In June 2003 the Birmingham Metropolitan Planning Organization unveiled its Birmingham Regional Transportation Alternatives Analysis (BRTAA) which included various transit recommendations including a proposal for a streetcar network serving both downtown and UAB. The BRTAA proposal envisioned streetcars along 19th Street North, 5th Avenue South and 7th Avenue South. Additionally, it also called for the development of new transit centers at the Greyhound station and along 5th Avenue South at 19th Street South, along with the existing Central Station. The service was planned to run at five-minute intervals during peak hours.

To implement the streetcar recommendation by 2010 required $163.5 million to open 5.7 miles of track, including 24 electric cars and 14 stations along the routes. By 2004, the routes were refined as part of the BRTAA proposal to include:

Heritage streetcars

Main article: Heritage streetcars

At the request of Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford in December 2007, the BJCTA developed a plan to develop a "heritage" streetcar line for downtown Birmingham. The $33 million proposal would use 10 vintage-styled cars on a 2.2-mile route connecting Birmingham Central Station to the BJCC along 19th and 20th Streets North. Bids for design and construction of the system were taken in June 2008, but the project was never realized.

See also