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CATS leader obscures consultants' ties to developer on key bus project

The main bus station uptown. The Charlotte Area Transit System has seen bus ridership decline by 75 percent since 2014.
Steve Harrison
The main bus station uptown. The Charlotte Area Transit System wants to rebuild it.

Charlotte Area Transit System chief executive John Lewis told the City Council Monday night that the city has hired an independent consultant to review the future of the main bus station uptown, but city documents and a private developer say otherwise.

The documents show that the city has hired a firm that is an offshoot of White Point Partners, a private developer that has proposed rebuilding the bus station underground. That raises questions as to whether the City Council will get an even-handed assessment of what’s best for bus passengers — or whether the upcoming analysis will recommend what’s best for the developer.

Earlier this summer, Lewis, city staff and White Point Partners unveiled big plans for the Charlotte Transportation Center, which is across from the Spectrum Center.

They proposed placing the station underground and building a mixed-use tower on top of it. The project might include a new practice facility for the Charlotte Hornets. And with the buses and bus passengers out of the way, the city said it could lead to a walkable festival area on Brevard Street across from the Spectrum Center.

But some council members were unsure whether it made sense to construct the station underground.

So city staff said it would slow the process down, and hire a consultant to study the best options for the station.

Council members in August voted to spend $2.9 million on the design and consulting contract for the station. But city staff didn’t tell council members they had hired an offshoot of White Point Partners, the firm that has already said it wants to place the station underground.

City Council member Dimple Ajmera asked Lewis whether the city should have hired an independent third party to study what’s best for bus passengers. She was referencing an earlier WFAE story.

“It’s the sister firm of the one that will be potentially developing this,” Ajmera said. “Could you please elaborate on that, and how we would be ensured this would be an objective process throughout?”

Lewis said the process for selecting the firm was legal and there was no conflict of interest.

But Ajmera continued.

“There are two parties,” she said. “One is the vendor that proposed the development and the one who is actually helping us assess the options whether we will have the transit center underground, at the grade level or some other location. Are you following?”

Lewis said he was.

He then added that while CATS has selected a development team (White Point Partners), he said “the evaluation is being done by CATS third party.”

Ajmera then asked: “So it’s not being done by the developer?”

Lewis said it is not.

“The developer is not doing the evaluation,” he said. “We have engaged our own consultants to help with the evaluation.”

But that is not what the city documents say.

In late August, the City Council voted 8-2 to spend $2.9 million on that design work, with WPTP Brevard LLC. That LLC has the same address and executive leadership as White Point.

Later in the meeting, council member Ed Driggs asked Lewis a specific question about whom the city hired for the consulting and design work.

Lewis conferred with his staff and then named the firms Kimley Horn and Perkins Eastman.

Driggs then asked: “And those are outside consultants?”

Lewis said yes.

But that is not true, according to White Point’s own communications firm.

On August 25, that firm emailed WFAE to say White Point Partners had retained two consultants to study the best station: Kimley Horn and Perkins Eastman.

That means that Kimley Horn and Perkins Eastman are not third parties — they are being paid by the developer. CATS did not respond to a WFAE email Monday night about the discrepancy.

On Tuesday, CATS released a statement in which Lewis said he misunderstood Driggs' question when he named Kimley Horn and Perkins Eastman. CATS said it will use other consultants to evaluate the proposals for the bus station.

During the council meeting, a representative for Perkins Eastman gave a brief presentation on three ideas for the bus station: Building it underground, building it on street level, and building on a second or third floor.

The presentation mentioned a few problems with placing it at street level and above ground, but offered no downsides to placing it underground.

One unspoken problem is cost: Digging a hole and building underground will likely cost more than building it at street level.

Driggs asked Lewis whether it “would it be fair to say that there are going to be substantial differences in the cost depending on which of these solutions we pursue?”

Lewis said he didn’t know. Driggs said it should the city should be able to give a rough estimate of how much a below-ground station should cost.

“I think it ought to be possible to know that,” Driggs said. “I think the concourse underground solution is a whole different engineering proposition. I wish we could get some kind of handle on what we are talking about.”

City staff have not said who would pay for the bus station.

It has received a $15 million federal grant to help pay for it, but the city has said total engineering work could cost $18 million.

The plans for the new bus station come as CATS bus ridership has plummeted, dropping 75% since its peak in 2014.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.