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A looming battle over control of CATS
Plus: City leaders are sounding more positive about the Red Line; Regional work-from-home map
You’re reading Transit Time, a weekly newsletter for Charlotte people who leave the house. Cars, buses, light rail, bikes, scooters … if you use it to get around the city, we write about it. Transit Time is produced in partnership between The Charlotte Ledger and WFAE.
Mecklenburg’s towns want more say over CATS’ operations after a dispute over how to address the transit system’s problems
by Steve Harrison
The mayors of six Mecklenburg towns, along with County Commissioner Leigh Altman, sent a letter to the city of Charlotte on Tuesday, demanding more power in how transit decisions are made.
The group wants to revamp the governing structure for the Metropolitan Transit Commission, which was formed in the late 1990s to help govern how the half-cent sales tax for transit is spent. It would be a major change for the Charlotte Area Transit System, which has been run as a city department.
At a Transit Commission meeting Wednesday, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said the commission would discuss the letter and CATS’ governance at its October meeting. The dispute comes as Charlotte is seeking more regional cooperation to advance its vision for transit, which includes extending light rail and enhancing bus service.
The conflict between Charlotte and the towns started earlier this year, after CATS revealed that a Lynx Blue Line train derailed last year while passengers were on board.
No one was hurt, but the N.C. Department of Transportation chastised CATS for not doing the required maintenance on its light-rail vehicles. It ordered CATS to place a 35 mph speed limit on all trains, which is still in effect.
The state also threatened to shut down either the Lynx Blue Line or the Gold Line streetcar if CATS didn’t have at least two people in the Rail Operations Control Center at all times.
The MTC voted to ask the city of Charlotte to hire an independent third party to investigate the problem. The city refused and instead asked the federal government to do a review.
That angered the MTC members, who felt the city was ignoring them. In an email to her constituents, Altman said the organization should not be a “rubber stamp.”
In Tuesday’s letter to the city, Altman and the mayors wrote that “over the past year, it has become increasingly clear that the parties’ original agreement did not provide the MTC sufficient authority to direct and oversee CATS’s operations or to ensure its accountability to the taxpayers.”
“I think a lot of the members of the MTC were really questioning their role,” Altman said in an interview. “Since of course, it was the first time in many years that we had sort of developed an opinion different from the city of Charlotte. And on that one occasion, it appeared we were overruled.”
The original MTC agreement expires next summer. The town mayors and Altman have proposed extending it another decade — but only if the city makes certain concessions.
They want the city to clarify that “the governance of CATS rests with the MTC” and that the mayors will be included in picking a new CATS chief executive and setting the transit agency’s budget. A mediator would settle disputes between the two bodies.
It’s unclear what would happen if the two sides can’t come to an agreement. It’s possible the Mecklenburg towns could push to keep the transit sales tax money that’s generated in their towns and create their own transit systems. The half-cent sales tax is the biggest source of funding for CATS.
The fight over the MTC comes at a delicate time for CATS, which is struggling to rebuild ridership and trust after a decade-long slide in passengers made worse by the pandemic and a series of safety mishaps. Lyles and City Council member Ed Driggs are trying to build support for a $13.5 billion transit plan that includes billions to build the Silver Line, which is a light-rail line from Matthews to the airport. They have proposed creating a regional transit authority that includes neighboring counties.
Driggs said he wants to work with Altman and the mayors to come up with a plan that works for everyone.
In a system where the MTC had most or all of the power, he said he’s worried that would disenfranchise Charlotte, which has nearly 900,000 residents. The six towns have a combined total of fewer than 180,000 people.
“I hope we can reach an arrangement soon with the mayors,” Driggs said. “And then get back to the serious work to advance the transportation plan.”
Lyles said in a statement:
We are reviewing the proposed amendments provided today by some members of the MTC regarding the future of public transit governance in our county. As I have previously stated publicly, there are two principles that we have broad agreement on. One is the need to update the interlocal agreement and the second is that a regional transit authority is in our future. I am in general agreement with many of the sentiments expressed in the letter that I received today from the town mayors and county MTC delegate.
Related Transit Time articles:
“Momentum builds for regional transit authority” (Sept. 13)
“The city manager in the hot seat” (April 27)
City leaders are sending out good vibes about the proposed Red Line; short on details, long on optimism
Charlotte leaders have been sending out signals in recent weeks that there’s encouraging progress on the proposed Red Line, the commuter rail corridor envisioned between Charlotte and Mecklenburg’s northern towns.
The idea has been on hold for years, with city leaders saying they need the cooperation of railroad Norfolk Southern, which controls the tracks. That’s been hard to come by. The Charlotte Area Transit System’s web page about the Red Line notes: “Until the Norfolk Southern passenger rail policy changes, there is no path forward.”
Now, though, elected officials active in the transit debate have been dropping hints that they’re making progress. The details are vague, but the vibes are newly positive:
In a speech this month to the South Charlotte Partners Regional Transportation Summit, Mayor Vi Lyles said: “We all know that delivering the Red Line is critical. … After three years of discussion with North Carolina Railroad and Norfolk Southern railroad, we are now in the best position in years to advance the Red Line and are continuing ongoing positive conversations to do so.”
This month, the City Council agreed to spend $5 million on updating the design of the Red Line, which was initially designed in 2009.
Asked this week about what’s up with the Red Line, council transportation committee chairman Ed Driggs said there have been “very encouraging developments” and the council is “very hopeful” that there will be an agreement with the railroad.
Pressed for specifics, Driggs said Norfolk Southern allowed a letter to be circulated “in which they indicated their willingness to talk.” He said he could not provide more details because “we have to maintain a certain confidentiality.”
Asked if there is any progress in talks with the city, a Norfolk Southern spokeswoman told Transit Time in an emailed statement:
Though this line remains a strategic part of our network, we have always valued our relationship with Charlotte and the surrounding communities. Wherever we can, we will continue to work with them on projects that intersect with our network, the needs of our customers and the interests of the region.
(That has been Norfolk Southern’s go-to media statement for at least a year.)
It is hard to discern whether Norfolk Southern’s supposed softening and willingness to talk — and city leaders’ expressions of optimism — are anything tangible or whether they represent some sort of posturing.
Traditionally, railroads are thought to be difficult to work with and typically have little incentive to cede control over their property or rail lines. —Tony Mecia
Map of the day: Working from home
In the Charlotte region, working from home is mostly a Mecklenburg County phenomenon.
This is a map of 2021 census estimates of the percentage of workers aged 16+ who work from home. The darker the blue, the higher the percentage.
Higher parking fines considered: The city of Charlotte is considering raising certain parking fines from $25 to $100, including for vehicles blocking bike lanes and streetcar lines and for tractor-trailers parked illegally. City officials said the higher fine could also apply to drivers who “block the box” by entering intersections that they can’t travel all the way through because of traffic, which annoyingly blocks cross-street traffic. The City Council is expected to vote on new ordinance language this fall. (Ledger)
Light rail to close for 2 days in October: The Blue Line light rail and Gold Line streetcar will shut down Oct. 7-8 for annual preventative maintenance, the Charlotte Area Transit System said. (Observer)
CATS parts ways with train operator: An investigation into a minor rail yard derailment of a light rail train last month has determined that it was a result of operator error, CATS interim CEO Brent Cagle said Wednesday. He said the operator “is no longer an employee of the city of Charlotte.”
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