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Transit Time is 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, you can read news and analysis about it here. Transit Time is produced in partnership by WFAE and The Charlotte Ledger. Subscribe here.

The Former CATS Chief Talks Transit Plan Mistakes

WFAE File Photo

Ron Tober is arguably the father of Charlotte mass transit.

He was the first chief executive of the Charlotte Area Transit System, from 1999 to 2007.

He led the construction of the original Lynx Blue Line from Interstate 485 to uptown.

And he created a long-range transit plan, which includes the Blue Line extension (which opened in 2018); the Gold Line streetcar (under construction); and the commuter rail line to Lake Norman (stalled for more than a decade due to an impasse with Norfolk-Southern railroad).

 Ron Tober was the first chief executive of the Charlotte Area Transit System, from 1999 to 2007.
Ron Tober was the first chief executive of the Charlotte Area Transit System, from 1999 to 2007.

Tober talked at the SouthPark Starbucks last week as the Colonial Pipeline crisis was unfolding and the Charlotte City Council was preparing to vote on the Future Charlotte 2040 Comprehensive Plan.

He talked about his frustrations with Charlotte Moves — an $8 billion to $12 billion transportation plan that would be funded with an increase in the Mecklenburg County sales tax of one penny. He also talked about his disappointment about the alignment of the planned Silver Line light-rail project from Matthews to Belmont.

He also said that the pandemic has been so disruptive to traditional work patterns that the city of Charlotte may need to wait longer than a year to see how many people return to work in-person before spending billions on trains and buses.

Some answers have been edited for brevity:

Q: The transportation plan has a little bit of everything: Light rail. Buses. Sidewalks. Greenways. Is that good — or would you prefer to see a more focused plan that concentrates on a few things, like the Silver Line?

It’s too scattershot — there’s no definition. We learned a lot of lessons with the Blue Line. You need cost estimates and getting cost estimates into people’s heads. They are talking $8-12 billion — but there’s not enough meat behind that number. And there are a lot of people concerned about the Silver Line alignment, missing the heart of downtown, missing the airport. They should take some time to revisit the Silver Line and be more specific about what they want voters to approve.

(The Silver Line is planned to run along Interstate 277 on the north end of uptown. Tober supported the idea of building a tunnel through the heart of uptown, but CATS said that was too expensive.)

Q. The airport — you want it to turn to the south and get close to the terminal, right? (Under the current plan, the station would be on Wilkinson Boulevard, and passengers would then ride a bus or people mover to the terminal.)

Get closer to the terminal, yes. There is a way to do it. The airport resisting it has nothing to do with TSA and security. It’s parking revenue. They need the revenue.

Charlotte Douglas is so close to downtown. A lot of people aren’t going to use it to get there. It will be predominantly for workers. But for the people who want to travel — to make them take a people mover and travel a mile — there’s not a lot of specificity on that. And there are a lot of people in the business community who aren’t crazy about that.

Q. Atlanta and D.C. have their trains running close to the terminal. I’ve heard people say it’s not safe because of the flight paths, and that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

It’s not in the flight paths. You can get a station in behind or in front of the daily parking decks. That’s within several hundred feet — not a mile.

Q. And what about the uptown alignment? You wanted a tunnel through the heart of uptown, but the Silver Line is going along I-277 north of uptown.

I don’t think it will get much ridership, particularly with the pandemic and the telecommuting. There were concerns about the risks of tunneling. But we never did detailed engineering studies about what’s underneath, how it would function. It’s short-sighted not to go through downtown so you aren’t serving both the northern half and southern half.

Q. Speaking of telecommuting, is it reasonable to say “Let’s hold off on the transit plan because we don’t know what uptown will look like in terms of how many people are working there”?

I think it makes a lot of sense. It’s not my preference, but frankly I would be hard-pressed to argue against that. We need to see. Is a year enough time to see how those commuting patterns settle out? Is a year from now enough time to see how much red is on the freeway (on apps like Google Maps)? I really think there will be more telecommuting from this thing than before.

Q. Do you worry about the plan being too vague and having something for everyone — buses, greenways, sidewalks and so forth? The arts tax was like that, and it failed. The arena vote that failed 20 years ago was like that too — something for everyone.

One of the things that concerns me is we don’t know much about the plans for the bus system. You think about how many CATS had in 2007 — we have almost exactly the same number of buses today. We are now over 1 million population. In terms of upward mobility, the question is how much emphasis is on light rail and how much is on bus improvements?

Q. With buses, it seems there are two big problems. One is the future of telecommuting. The other is that before the pandemic, CATS had lost one-third of its bus riders in a short amount of time. You can make argument that we need more buses. The other argument is that buses have already been creamed by ride-share. Can they recover?

People talk about Uber and Lyft as taking people off of public transportation. I don’t see that. And from what I read, that’s not a major contributor (to transit ridership declines). The biggest thing is quality of the service. People that have choice in terms of how they travel can telecommute much easier. People who ride buses don’t have the opportunity to telecommute. They have to be there on the job.

Q. Some say that in a good economy, more people can buy their own car and they don’t need the bus. Does that play into it?

Sure it does. Particularly about the quality of service and how people can complete their trips. I’m not denying that. But CATS has had some success in some routes where they have made changes.

Q. With the Red Line, when the northern towns said they were opposed to the plan because the Red Line was never built, (planning director) Taiwo Jaiyeoba said this year, “now it’s a high priority.” Did that convince anyone?

I assume it didn’t. I won’t cuss here while I’m being recorded. It’s as if (an attempt to build the Red Line) wasn’t done in the past. The reality is there is a business case for Norfolk Southern to do this.

Q. Going back in the past, was it a failure of the city to negotiate the deal with Norfolk-Southern for an intermodal yard at the airport and not secure the rights to the freight line to build the Red Line?

I couldn’t agree more. I tried to talk to (former aviation director) Jerry Orr and he didn’t want anything to do with me. I tried to talk to the mayor and the city manager’s office, and I couldn’t get anything done. They wanted that intermodal terminal at the airport.

Q. Let’s assume there is no breakthrough on the northern line. Is the best strategy to be honest and just say “It doesn’t look like we can do this?”

Yeah. And the rhetoric of giving additional priority to this is … B.S., OK. I’m sorry, Taiwo, it’s B.S. It’s as if we haven’t done that.

Q. Why has Taiwo taken the lead on the mobility plan instead of CATS chief executive John Lewis?

Good question. … (Lewis) needs to. And he hasn’t.

Transit Time is produced in partnership among WFAE, The Charlotte Ledger and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Subscribe here. Other affiliated Charlotte newsletters and podcasts include: The Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter and Ways of Life newsletter (obituaries), available from The Charlotte Ledger; WFAE's Inside Politics newsletter; and The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute newsletter and the Future Charlotte podcast from the Urban Institute.

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.