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What’s Next for BJCTA chief Frank T. Martin As He Departs Birmingham

Frank T. Martin, departing executive director and CEO of the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA), outside “The Magic City Connector,” which connects downtown Homewood to Birmingham. (Joe Songer, For The Birmingham Times)
By Haley Wilson
The Birmingham Times

On a recent September morning, Frank Thomas Martin arrives at Homewood City Hall to board a MAX Transit bus that will take him to several landmarks in the Birmingham metro area.

He will be taking one of his final trips on the area’s public transportation system as executive director and CEO of the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA).

Martin’s term as leader of MAX ends on October 1, when he will be succeeded by Charlotte Shaw, former deputy director of capital projects for the city of Birmingham.

The route Martin is taking is known as “The Magic City Connector,” which he says is a “very, very special route.”

“It connects downtown Homewood to the Birmingham-Jefferson County Civic Complex [BJCC],” he said. “We have been operating this route for quite a few years, and it’s probably the route [on which] we have about 20-minute surges.”

During the one-hour-and-15-minute ride between Homewood and the BJCC, the bus makes numerous stops that include Vulcan Trail, Birmingham City Hall, historic Morris Avenue, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Martin sits comfortably in front of the bus wearing a colorful bowtie with pink, green, and yellow polka dots reflecting on his term as CEO.

Martin, 71, said he wants the agency’s next leaders to build on some of the initiatives that he has underway.

“I want what I call the BJCTA to become ‘the mobility manager’ for the region,” he said during the bus ride. “That way, you would have public transit, microtransit, scooters, bikes, and all of that coming together under one organization … because, at the end of the day, this is about how can we effectively move citizens and residents around the region in a very efficient manner.”

The goal, Martin said, is to reduce the number of cars in the area and get people to park their vehicles and ride the bus.

“In order to do that, [the system] needs to be attractive to those occasional riders. If we had that strong commitment for that type of service, we would get more people to use it.”

Martin is excited about the Birmingham Xpress Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project that’s coming online in June 2022—just in time for The World Games. That will be “a game changer for the region,” he said.

“I am hopeful that, over time, the Birmingham Xpress BRT will be just one of many lines operating for Birmingham and Jefferson County. That’s the wave of the future. Maybe one day there will be a rail system or a commuter rail system operating in the area, as well.”

Martin also points to changes large and small during his tenure. “We developed the MAX logo and were able to get increased funding for the system,” he said. “When you look at the system now, I was asked to come back for a second time [his first tour was in July 1980 as [a BJCTA] assistant general manager] and restore public confidence. … We, as a public transit organization, can be transparent, honest, and direct with all stakeholders, so I am hopeful that I have re-established the credibility in the community.”

Martin will be relocating from Birmingham to Central Florida, but he plans to remain busy, especially in the transportation and education industry.

“I will continue to provide assistance to a select number of companies that would like to utilize my services to navigate the public transit industry,” he said.

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Industry Veteran

Martin grew up and was educated in Nashville, Tennessee, which he said is a “very vibrant community.” In 1974, he graduated from Tennessee State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration and continued his studies at Fisk University, where he earned a master’s degree in urban and regional planning.

Growing up, he noticed a transit problem that led him to a 45-year career. “I got involved in transportation as a result of seeing what happened in Nashville, with the interstate highway system coming through and really disrupting my community,” Martin recalled. “I was trying to understand the reasons why Interstate 40, a major interstate system, came through and disrupted my neighborhood and forced the relocation of about 40 percent of the residents.

“Within North Nashville, Jefferson Street was a very well recognized commercial hub that had barbershops, hardware stores, bakeries, shoe shops, floral shops, all with walk-in traffic. … The interstate highway system came through and disrupted the whole pattern, and that was the demise of that commercial hub.”

Martin wondered how all of that could happen.

“The state could have chosen a number of other alternatives for the interstate highway system route, but, just as in a lot of urban communities, it went right through the heart of the urban core, those areas permanently populated by Black residents,” he said. “All of this was done under the guise of progress, but really it was very devastating for communities of color, and they have not recovered.”

With this in mind, Martin joined the North Central Florida Regional Council in 1974 as a mass transit planner and eventually made his way to Birmingham.

“I initially came to Birmingham in July 1980 as [a BJCTA] assistant general manager. I was promoted to general manager in May 1981, … when the system had been shut down for three months,” he said. “After three months, the system reopened. In order to provide a system that we could operate within our funding, … we actually had to trim 37 percent of the service.”

Former riders were forced to find alternatives during the shutdown, and only 18,000 of the system’s previous average of 30,000 riders returned when service resumed, he said.

Wearing Many Hats

In 1984, Martin left the BJCTA to work as assistant general manager for the New Orleans Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) before moving on to other transit-related positions across the nation, including stints in Florida, Virginia, and California.

“I spent about five years in Silicon Valley and San Jose, [California],” he said. “When I was out there, let’s just say we operated in warp speed. It was a very entrepreneurial area. … Obviously, by being Silicon Valley, we were able to get things done. We had a local community that was very, very supportive of public transportation.”

In 2018, Martin returned to the Magic City to succeed then interim director Christopher Ruffin, who had resigned.

Martin’s primary task was to restore the public’s confidence in the system and make the BJCTA a “fiscally sound organization.” He was able to get the system running efficiently again through “strategic planning and rebuilding of relationships,” said BJCTA Director of Communications Myrna J Pittman.

“Martin has built solid relationships,” she said. “I can say this because I attended a lot of those meetings when he first came here. Martin has pulled down those walls, and he is highly respected because of his knowledge, his experience, and [his ability to] break some bad trends that were happening in transit.”

Martin points to MAX’s relationships “with our suburban partners”—Homewood, Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, and Hoover.

“We have a very good working relationship with those cities, as well as the city of Bessemer,” he said. “I think those five cities, specifically, are going to be very critical and are going to be very important to be at the table to take the [BJCTA] where it needs to go. It can’t be just one entity. It needs to be a collective effort with [all the municipalities], along with the county, coming together in conversation.”

With the possibility of free time on his hands, the longtime executive said he looks forward to two loves, he said.

“I have a passion for higher education. For the state of Florida, I’ve served on two very high-powered policy boards. For six years, I served on the Board of Governors, overseeing the entire state university system in the state of Florida and the Board of Trustees for a brand new state university: Florida Polytechnic University,” he said.

And, “I will be getting back into photography,” continued Martin, who opened FTMart Photography in the spring of 2014. “I have not broken out my cameras—[Nikon models D750, DD500, and D7100]—in quite a while. My sister-in-law actually called and asked me to take pictures of my godson and her son, who graduated from law school. She says, ‘Hey, [you] need to come up and take pictures of [your godson] Matthew for graduation.’ … I’ve taken the pictures and put them in a book. … Now I just need to go back in and finish editing a little bit more. … [A personal photobook Matthew’s law school graduation] is long overdue, about three months overdue.”