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A Lynx Blue Line train derailed in May 2022 because of a broken axle bearing. A subsequent investigation that found the same problem could exist in all 43 light-rail vehicles. CATS interim CEO Brent Cagle only learned about the accident and investigation nearly a year after the incident, when he received a letter from the NC DOT regarding the incident.

City says it doesn't plan to hire outside investigator for transit review

 Ridership on the Lynx Blue Line increased by 86 percent from March 2022 from March 2021.
File photo
The city of Charlotte will ask the Federal Transit Administration to review the Lynx Blue Line.

The city of Charlotte said Monday that it has no plans to hire an outside firm to investigate what happened before and after the May 2022 derailment of a Lynx Blue Line train.

Instead, Charlotte will ask the federal government to conduct a review of the Charlotte Area Transit System, with a focus on maintenance of light-rail vehicles.

The city’s announcement comes roughly two weeks after the Metropolitan Transit Commission voted unanimously to launch an outside investigation to review the derailment, including interviews with executives and reviews of emails and other documents.

MTC members were upset about how CATS handled the derailment. Senior transit officials didn't disclose the accident for nine months — even keeping new interim CEO Brent Cagle, who took over in December, in the dark until February.

City Council member Ed Driggs, who chairs the transportation committee, said the federal government’s review will be effective — and won’t cost the city money. He said the MTC vote was not binding on the City Council.

“It was a resolution they passed with a request to us,” said Driggs, who added that the City Council could consider hiring an outside consultant later if they choose to do so. “So then it’s up to us to decide how to respond to the request. They don’t have the authority to require that, so we are taking the action that is appropriate.”

The city’s plan is for the Federal Transit Administration to perform its scheduled review of CATS two years ahead of schedule. That review would have taken place in 2023. The FTA last reviewed CATS in 2022.

CATS is a city of Charlotte department that is governed by the City Council. It also is governed by the Metropolitan Transit Commission since most of its budget comes from a countywide sales tax.

Mecklenburg Commissioner Leigh Altman said Monday that she needs to speak with other members of the MTC before commenting on the city’s plan.

City Council member Renee Johnson said Monday she thought the city should do both —hire an outside consultant and also expedite the FTA review.

“I think we should follow the MTC recommendation and not deviate,” she said.

But most members of City Council’s transportation committee were OK with moving forward with the FTA. City Manager Marcus Jones said he hopes that will satisfy the MTC.

Jones also said last week that he doesn't plan on recommending City Council vote to release information from some CATS employees' personnel files. Although such files aren't public records, state law allows local governments to release that information if doing so will help restore public trust.

In addition to discussing the review, Cagle told City Council members that the DOT has cited CATS for sometimes only having one controller operating a light-rail operations center — when there should at least be two.

The DOT wrote that CATS “routinely” schedules only one person to be in the center. The state said that “creates stress and nearly overwhelming levels of responsibility.”

After receiving a complaint from a CATS employee, the DOT conducted a surprise inspection of the operations center on March 31. The DOT told CATS that if it can't staff the operations center with two staffers, it would have to shut down one of its two rail lines.

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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.