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Behind the Spat Between Mayor Woodfin, City Councilor Over $8 Million From Transit Authority

Mayor Randall Woodfin (left). City Councilor Darrell O'Quinn

By Ryan Michaels

The Birmingham Times

The city of Birmingham could collect $8 million from the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA), despite concerns from a city councilor and the organization’s CEO, who said the money “probably should never have been agreed to.”

In February 2018, Mayor Randall Woodfin and Barbara Murdock, who was then CEO of the BJCTA, signed a contract which laid out obligations for the new bus rapid transit (BRT) project and how the two entities would finance its construction, as well as handle maintenance, operations and related property exchanges.

In recent weeks, Birmingham City Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, head of the council’s Transportation Committee, has said part of the contract obligates the BJCTA to pay $8 million to the city.

After re-reading the agreement, O’Quinn said he couldn’t believe what he saw.

“What the hell were we thinking? What the hell were they thinking because the terms are terrible for the BJCTA,” O’Quinn told The Birmingham Times.

The BJCTA provides the level of service that the city pays for, so taking money from the authority is senseless, O’Quinn said, pointing to the mayor’s proposed FY 2024 budget, which includes a funding increase of about $4 million from the FY 2023 budget

“We have an open hand with a reward in one hand, and we have a knife ready to stab them in the back with the other hand. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” O’Quinn said.

Earlier, O’Quinn told The Times the BJCTA wouldn’t be able to meet the financial requirement.

“It was stupid for the city of Birmingham to think that BJCTA could meet that obligation, and it was doubly stupid for the BJCTA to agree to that term,” O’Quinn said.

Charlotte Shaw, CEO of the BJCTA, said the $8 million from the transit agency “probably should never have been agreed to.” If the BJCTA had to give that money to the city, any gap in the organization’s budget would have to be made up by the city, anyway, she said.

“Per the enabling legislation, the city has to make up the difference of the budget, so if they were to take $8 million, we would only have to turn around and ask them for $8 million,” Shaw said.

Currently, the organization doesn’t have room to give that kind of funding up, Shaw said. “I just don’t have it in my budget to be able to repay that kind of money,” Shaw said.

City Officials Disagree

O’Quinn recently clashed with Woodfin at a May 30 meeting of the council, where the council passed a motion related to a separate portion of the contract.

In contrast to O’Quinn, Woodfin said during the meeting he doesn’t want to take the option to collect money off the table. “…we should collect first and then determine how those funds should be spent, not necessarily just not collect because we don’t think they can produce…” the mayor said.

Should the city collect the money, that $8 million could go right back to BJCTA or used elsewhere such as “paving streets … the $8 million is not chump change. That could be highly impactful on the things we all want to see,” Woodfin said.

The success of the new BRT system, which has been operating since September 2022, should also be part of the discussion of what to do with the money, Woodfin said.

“I don’t want to short-change [O’Quinn’s thoughts] or say they’re not relevant. I think it may be premature to amend that and cut that option off. We’re all in a wait-and-see mode or approach to what’s going to happen with the future of the bus rapid transit system…” Woodfin said.

Though Shaw said she is awaiting guidance from the BJCTA’s legal team and discussion with Woodfin, she believes the city will do right by the organization, she said.

“Based on the relationship [between the city and BJCTA] and how we have resolved discussions in the past, I don’t have any reason to believe that the mayor would not do what’s in the best interest of BJCTA because he has been a strong supporter of transportation, especially the BRT,” Shaw said.

“I don’t see it as a potential issue for us,” she added.