Can Driggs put the train back on track?
New chair of City Council's transportation committee on what needs to happen with transit plan, CATS, streetcar and more
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Q&A: Ed Driggs, new chair of the City Council’s transportation committee, says a revamped transit plan could be done in smaller chunks, with regional buy-in — and he’s not ready to back a sales tax increase (yet)
Last month, Charlotte City Council member Ed Driggs, a Republican who represents south Charlotte, was picked by Mayor Vi Lyles to chair the council’s Transportation, Planning and Development committee.
There are a lot of issues on the committee’s plate at the moment — from working to solve troubles with bus service to overseeing the implementation of new development rules. But few issues loom larger than trying to figure out how Charlotte moves forward with its ambitious $13.5 billion goal of building new transit lines, expanding greenways and sidewalks and adding buses.
Driggs is also Charlotte’s representative to the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, a panel that could play a key role in figuring out any big regional transit plan.
A self-described moderate Republican in his fifth term on the council, Driggs tends to be respected among his Democratic counterparts, though they don’t always agree. On transit and transportation, he’s not opposed to sweeping changes and big ideas per se — but he often pushes for a better understanding of costs, trade-offs and unintended consequences.
If that sounds like how an economist might approach problems, you’re right: Driggs has a bachelor’s from Princeton in economics and pursued graduate studies in mathematical economics. He’s retired following a career in finance.
Charlotte Ledger editor Tony Mecia sat down with Driggs this week to pick his brain about the future of the transit plan, the outlook for streetcars and how to restore faith in the Charlotte Area Transit System. Remarks were edited for clarity and length.
Q. You're one of two Republicans on an 11-member city council, and Mayor Lyles, who is a Democrat, asked you to serve as the chair of the committee over transportation. What did she indicate that she wanted you to do with that committee?
I think she was relying on the time I had spent previously working with our transformational mobility network. And I hope she just felt that I was the guy that had the most subject matter knowledge and was therefore the best person for the job.
Q. Your selection was seen as “Well, if a Republican who's maybe a little skeptical of some of the things that were proposed is chosen to lead the committee, does that mean she thinks the transit plan should be scaled down?”
I don’t think it was as subtle as that. It was just a question of this is an important assignment. And she wanted the person in there that she felt had the most knowledge of the subject.
Q. What needs to be done? You have the plan that's been out there for a couple of years and doesn't really seem like it's going anywhere. Is that plan dead? Does it need to be tinkered with or completely overhauled?
The Charlotte Moves plan is now the Transformational Mobility Network. That was brought forward by Charlotte. And then, finally, Charlotte recognized that the people that we needed to partner with were not just going to climb on board with Charlotte’s plan. So we had to back up a little bit and enlist partners and try to pull together a regional system. It was then moved over to the [Charlotte Regional Business] Alliance in order to create that network, as the Alliance serves a larger geography. And that’s where it is right now.
That we need to kind of expand that into the surrounding area has now become apparent to everybody. So we’re looking at maybe Connect Beyond as an idea as to how to do that, because a lot of work has gone into that. The challenge now is to bring all of those other communities in and form a kind of joined-up neural network.
Q. Have you talked to Senator [Phil] Berger or [Speaker] Tim Moore about the needs in the Charlotte region?
Yes. I would interpret their position as being kind of a “wait and see.” You know about the tensions between Mecklenburg and Raleigh. So I think they’re watching curiously to see what we come up with.
I do not believe the General Assembly is ready now to consider a bill to authorize a referendum. And they’re going to have to see a credible regional plan. And so, we will continue to talk to them. We’re going to try and improve our dialogue with them.
Q. Have you talked to them recently?
It’s been a couple of months, I guess. There wasn’t anything new to talk about.
Q. Their position has always been, “Charlotte hasn’t come to us. They haven’t asked us for anything.” There is no ask on the table, right?
There isn’t. So the city, internally, actually drafted a bill. We had a draft of a bill ready that we were going to show them to demonstrate what it was we wanted. And it became apparent that at this stage, that was not going to lead to a good result.
The thing about a bill in the legislature is, it’s not like they reject it. They don’t vote it down. They just don’t bring it up for a vote. You’re going to have no action by them until you’ve got something a lot more credible.
If you have a larger plan, you can recruit legislators from the probably Republican surrounding areas and try to get a reasonable internal advocacy going.
Q. Could those Republicans, and you as a Republican, get behind a one-cent sales tax increase?
Not as it stands.
As it stands right now, the scale of the plan is such that it will take probably 20 years to complete. And the debt will not be repaid for 30 years after that.
I imagine creating this regional context, which would make it even bigger, but then breaking it down into more chunks. And I think this is what Austin [Texas] did.
I think we need to have it in more proximate, digestible chunks, so that the relationship between starting to pay for it and its being available and being delivered is closer.
Q. Do you need to do the whole thing? Do you need a Silver Line that goes from Belmont to Matthews and a Red Line that goes to the northern towns? Do you have to do it all, or can it be scaled back?
Well, some people think that you need to have all of the commitments for the entire project, because you don’t want to end up like the Gold Line, or you’re not quite sure what comes next. But I think you need to start with a useful segment. And then take your chances, frankly, on whether you are able to get people to accept the other segments. But I think the idea of asking them to absorb the cost of the entire system — in one referendum, initially $250 million a year or so in county sales tax, and going up from there — is tough sell. So the question is, how do you make it more palatable?
Q. What's it going to take for the surrounding counties to get on board? If you just say, “OK, we'll give you express bus service between Albemarle and uptown,” are they going to say, “OK, great! We're going to move this forward in the legislature”?
The surrounding towns through the Connect Beyond process are interested, or they’re paying lip service, at least. When you get down to the nitty gritty of what financial contributions you need from them, and what they will see as a result, it’s going to get harder.
So think we need to persuade them that they will benefit from becoming part of the larger Charlotte economy and having better access to the larger Charlotte economy and that they could participate without the feeling that they are subsidizing a system that mainly benefits other people.
Q. You have talked about creating a regional authority. That seems like that's worked in other places. How would that work here? Would that mean Charlotte would give up control of what is mainly a Charlotte transit system?
The authority is basically a new entity that is created among willing partners with a charter, a governance structure and financial capacity. So all of the members commit to certain taxes and the proceeds of which are paid into it. And then the authority can issue debt. And the investors who buy the debt aren’t worried individually about this town or that town. They’re looking to this centralized issuing entity. And they’re basing their debt capacity calculations on that.
Ideally, in my mind, you would have a mutually acceptable plan among all the parties. So it says, “You're going to have these bus lines, and it’s going to cost that much to create them. You’re going to pay this much in taxes, and those are commensurate amounts,” and try to get everybody excited that way. The one thing that I’m still watching on Connect Beyond is whether all of the parties involved in that are looking past local solutions and really thinking in terms of that greater connectivity.
Q. Is there any sort of timeline that you're seeing for this plan to emerge?
There is none that’s been offered, officially or by the people principally involved in it, like the city manager and so on. My personal view is we’re talking two, three years. We have to get all of the parties together around governance. We also have to start soon with a major marketing campaign.
So it’s going to take a while.
Q. You voted against a contract to design the next phase of the streetcar. Do you foresee a streetcar ever going down Central Avenue?
The problem with that vote was that they were looking to spend money and they hadn’t answered a lot of questions that they could have answered before asking for that money. So it was brought to us really half-baked. And they said, “Yeah, we have a problem with cars parking on the tracks. And we’ve had operating difficulties. We’ve had ridership problems. But still, you know, we should spend this money.”
Going way back to the beginning, I was negative about the streetcar. And I was around early on. I think that the tax and the streetcar thing happened just before I took office. Just like [former council member] Kenny [Smith] and I for years, if we heard the word “streetcar,” we said no. And it didn’t matter.
Q. Do you think that skepticism has been validated?
Do the east and the west sides of town feel like they’re better off? It was held out to them as a deal, right? And it was way down, in fourth or fifth place, on the Metropolitan Transit Commission’s priority list. It was raised up on the basis that we would use [Capital Investment Plan] money and federal money to pay for it instead of the transportation funds.
I can’t see that there’s any metric that suggests that that has produced a good return on that investment. And to go the other six miles out from where it is now? That’s probably at least $500 million. And where’s the cost/benefit analysis on that?
I’ve always been a skeptic on a streetcar. And back in the beginning, I said, “Imagine you had, currently, $500 million that you could spend to benefit certain communities. Would your first choice have been to build the streetcar?”
I’m sure a lot of people in those communities would have said, “Well, let’s think about what could be done with that,” like housing.
Q. CATS has had a lot of problems. A lot of people rely on reliable bus service, and it doesn't seem like it exists right now. Maybe it's gotten a little better. What needs to happen with that? Does the change need to start at the top? Do we need a leadership change? Do we need just the bus drivers to pass a contract? What has to happen?
Obviously, we need to have a contract with the drivers. The contract has got to limit unexcused absences.
I think there’s a bigger question in that. And that is, is the current concept that we have for a bus system responsive to today’s demand for bus travel?
There has been a lot of criticism of John Lewis. I think he’s brought some of it on himself. I’m not sure how much better somebody else in that position would have done. It’s an incredibly tough assignment. So I’m not as eager to pin it on him.
I think we’ve got Covid-related environmental factors, and maybe a whole paradigm shift in terms of public transportation and how people want to go places. I’m still watching and waiting to see what CATS brings back to us, and whether it looks like it’s going to improve ridership. No question that is down a lot.
And that affects the finances of CATS, and again, should affect our thinking about how we go forward.
On CATS-related issues, this transportation center — I don’t know if that was your next question.
Q. You can keep going.
I have a concern about that. I’d like to know where we come out with CATS, in order to make a decision about how appropriate it is to have any big transportation center, and which of the options that have been offered to us are the most appropriate. So I don’t want that process to just proceed under its own momentum.
Q. Speaking of things proceeding on their own momentum, it seems like you've been critical in the past of staff getting a little over their skis — that they start doing things that maybe the council hasn't explicitly authorized, and that things just sort of continue on their own pace, regardless of what the council wants to do. Do you think that the city manager needs to account for that? How do you stop that from happening?
It is fundamentally difficult for the staff, who are professionals, to do what they do and keep Council updated with everything. I accept that. I recognize that it is difficult.
But I’m very sensitive to the idea that certain individuals are kind of going down a road that leaves us, by the time we hear about it, with limited choices. Like we’ve already spent money, or they have already decided which of the possible bidders they like. I’m trying to work with the staff and the manager to just find a good balance, where Council has an opportunity in a timely fashion to provide input or expressed preferences. And yeah, sometimes I do get the feeling we get stuff shown to us, and we’re told we have to vote on this in two weeks.
It’s important in a lot of these situations not to get carried away with a particular narrative, like “the director of CATS is incompetent” or “Cintra are a bunch of greedy capitalists, and they're Spanish, and we shouldn't be doing business with a foreign company,” which, you know, really makes me laugh. I mean, everybody drives foreign cars. My car is German. It’s a world economy in which you could barely identify where a large multinational company is headquartered. Being xenophobic about hiring Cintra —I mean, there are reasons to be careful about working with Cintra because a lot of the bad odor that came out of the last deal. But the notion that because it’s a Spanish company, we should not be hiring them — it's kind of funny in this day and age.
Q. If you were made emperor of transit, what would that look like? What would you do?
I’m sure it would be bad! I mean, I’m not qualified to exercise that kind of authority.
I think I would try and put this train I’ve been describing back on the tracks — established a sequence of events leading up to some sort of successful referendum on a new revenue source — however big or whatever that is — and just operate within reasonable bounds the whole time.
Planning for the Red Line: The Charlotte Area Transit System is planning to spend $5 million planning for the Red Line to northern Mecklenburg, even though the future of the line is uncertain because railroad Norfolk Southern has not agreed to share its tracks with a passenger rail line. (Axios Charlotte)
Fact-checking CATS CEO: WFAE’s Steve Harrison examined some of the claims by CATS CEO John Lewis about why the uptown bus station is obsolete — including the CATS’ chiefs statements that the transportation center is “nearing the end of its useful life” and that it is beset with “design challenges.” (WFAE)
Transit experiences: Axios Charlotte talked with six bus riders about their perceptions of riding transit in Charlotte. (Axios Charlotte)
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When will the organizational review of CATS be revealed?
From July 28th Transit Time by Tony Mecia:
...Last week, City Manager Marcus Jones said in a memo to council members that the city hired Management Partners, a consulting firm that works with the public sector, “to conduct an organizational review of CATS.”...