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Public transit is a climate change tool, but CATS chief says he needs funding to make it better

A man steps off a CATS express bus in uptown Charlotte. CATS CEO John Lewis says the system must be improved to boost ridership and help the city meet its climate goals.
David Boraks
A man steps off a CATS express bus in uptown Charlotte. CATS CEO John Lewis says the system must be improved to boost ridership and help the city meet its climate goals.

The head of Charlotte Area Transit System says attracting more rail and bus riders will help the city reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. But CEO John Lewis admits that to do that, he needs a proposed sales tax increase to pay for better service.

Transportation accounts for 40% of the Charlotte region's carbon emissions. Lewis said public transportation is an important tool in the city's fight to slow climate change.

CATS CEO John Lewis
Charlotte Area Transit System

"Having a highly functional transit system is going to be the key to that," Lewis said in an interview. "We're doing things, where we're converting our fleet to electric buses. And we can talk about that if you want. But the best thing that we can do to help is to have a system that is so reliable that people want to get out of their cars."

But Lewis acknowledged that right now the system doesn't do that.

So along with Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles and other local officials, he's trying to build support for a proposed 1-cent sales tax to help pay for the city's share of a $13.5 billion "mobility network." It would expand and improve not only trains and buses but roads, bicycle paths and greenways.

Currently, many CATS routes have 40 minutes or more between buses, Lewis said.

"That's not an effective system. And this is not a new problem for us. This has been a structural issue for CATS for quite some time. The only thing that can address that is the 1-cent sales tax," Lewis said.

"I need to buy 100-plus more buses. I need to hire 50 to 60 more operators and 30 to 40 more mechanics in order to have an effective transit system," Lewis said.

But the proposed tax is currently in limbo.

City leaders had hoped to put the tax on the ballot in November. But the city lacks legislative approval.

The plan also is still facing opposition from the three mayors in north Mecklenburg County. Davidson Mayor Rusty Knox said they want a promise that CATS will bring improvements to the area, either better express bus service or preferably a rail line.

"I just can't in good conscience, and I've told Vi (Lyles) this, unless Charlotte can deliver something tangible in this corridor, I don't see any way in the world that I can ask my citizens to support it," Knox said.

"If we get enhanced Bus Rapid Transit, I'm fine riding the bus. But the problem is for most people, it doesn't matter if it's a brand new bus with Wi-Fi and leather seats. A lot of people's real-world perspective is, it's a bus and I don't know why, they think a train is better," Knox said.

Knox said the mayors recently met with Mayor Lyles and City Manager Marcus Jones, to begin negotiating over those concerns. He also said city officials have been talking with state rail officials about another holdup - the unwillingness of freight rail operator Norfolk Southern to let passenger rail run on the mostly unused tracks from Charlotte to Davidson.

A city spokesperson says there's nothing new to report.

Earlier in February , Mayor Vi Lyles and other local leaders backed the proposed tax during a Transit Equity Day eventhosted by the environmental group Sustain Charlotte.

"We've just got to get the message out there and get people to understand that if we provide efficient, clean and safe transportation modes as an option, especially as we begin to understand what climate change is going to do to our community, I think we can see that we'll get someplace on funding this plan," Lyles said.

To executive director Shannon Binns of Sustain Charlotte, boosting transit ridership and other transportation alternatives is a necessity.

"Every trip we can take via transit versus a car, we're reducing that climate pollution. So it's a critical part of reducing our impact on the climate," he said.

Lewis's candor about the state of the system comes despite years of efforts to improve commute times. That includes the Envision My Ride initiative begun in 2016, when Lewis pledged to move away from CATS' hub-and-spoke system and provide more direct trips for riders.

At the moment, the system remains hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic. Ridership is stagnant and worse, CATS is facing staff shortages due to illness as well as a high number of vacancies in existing positions.

Lewis said about 100 staff call in sick daily, up from about 30 a day before the pandemic. That's a big chunk of a workforce that includes 800 bus operators, administrators and mechanics, 66 rail operators and 78 drivers in CATS special transportation service for people with disabilities.

"The retention and recruiting of operators and mechanics is at an all-time challenge for us. We have more vacancies and more long-term vacancies - and I'll define that as position openings greater than 60 days - than we've had in the seven years I've been here. And I think that's a direct result of the challenges and stress that the pandemic has put on frontline employees," Lewis said.

Lewis said CATS is offering $2,000 to $3,000 retention bonuses to hold on to existing staff.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.