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How CATS used 'really suspect' ridership projections to guide Silver Line route decision

The Charlotte Area Transit System said in the summer of 2022 that bringing the Silver Line into the heart of uptown would have the most passengers by 2050. A few months later, it told City Council something else.
Steve Harrison
The Charlotte Area Transit System said in the summer of 2022 that bringing the Silver Line into the heart of uptown would have the most passengers by 2050. A few months later, it told City Council something else.

The Charlotte Area Transit System’s analysis of how the proposed $8 billion Silver Line light rail should pass through uptown contains misrepresentations and an out-right error, as well as questions as to whether some data was made up, according to a WFAE review of internal CATS documents.

Ron Tober, a former head of CATS, also reviewed the analysis. He said the projections appear to be “really suspect.”

And Julie Eiselt, a former City Council member who spent five years on the transportation committee, said CATS should start over with a new report in order to rebuild trust.

Because CATS must win over Mecklenburg County voters to approve a new 1-cent sales tax to fund the plan, she says making accurate, trusted numbers is even more important.

“So why not take the opportunity to build trust and to reset what’s been done in the past?” she said. “Get rid of some of the tension that’s out there in the public and do it right. With numbers that people can trust.”

The heart of the issue is where the proposed Silver Line from Matthews to the airport should roll through uptown Charlotte.

Should the train loop around the center city, along North Graham Street, roughly following Interstate 277 near the baseball stadium? Or should it go right through the heart of the city’s skyscrapers, by sharing rail lines already in use?

Last summer, Silver Line project manager Andy Mock told the City Council’s transportation committee that the second option looked like the best bet.

“There would be a significant cost savings and a significant increase in ridership,” Mock said in June.

The direct route would save $1 billion, Mock said. It would travel through uptown in two phases, following the Blue Line and Gold Line streetcar tracks. That’s called interlining.

The first phase would go from Matthews to uptown, and the second would go west from near Trade and Tryon on streetcar tracks to the planned Gateway train station. It would then go to the airport and beyond.

Mock added that “by pursuing the interlining vision you are really capturing more employment, you are capturing over 30,000 more employees on a daily basis that can be riding your system.”

He also said that this route had the most economic development potential because it would be close to undeveloped or underutilized land in Belmont and Optimist Park.

Layna Hong

CATS reverses itself

But six months later, CATS reversed itself.

It was now pushing for the route that would loop north around uptown, skirting center city before turning west near Graham Street. That’s known as the Locally Preferred Alternative, or LPA.

CATS now said the cost savings of sharing tracks with the Blue and Gold lines straight through uptown would be much less — a savings of only $500 or $600 million versus the earlier $1 billion.

Instead of having the most riders, CATS now projected the shared route would have the least by 2050.

And there would be less economic development potential. Tracy Dodson, the city’s economic development director, said that the proposed Gateway Station transit hub near Truist Field would suffer if City Council members didn’t choose the route that looped around uptown.

Gateway Station would still be served by the Silver Line route that shares Blue Line and Gold Line tracks but at a later date.

“Just in that area you can see a loss of more than $750 million worth of development, density,” she said.

The City Council and the Metropolitan Transit Commission ended up supporting the route that loops around the city.

But why did the projections — on ridership, cost and economic development — change so dramatically?

In January, WFAE asked Mock a blunt question: Did CATS just make up new numbers?

“That is not true,” Mock said. “We followed the facts wherever they took us. We followed the model wherever it took us. We questioned our modeling team to make sure we had the best information possible.”

City of Charlotte
CATS Silver Line project manager Andy Mock (left) praised a route that would bring the train into the heart of uptown.

To understand what happened, WFAE asked CATS for the ridership analysis submitted by its consultant, WSP.

CATS initially said it didn’t receive one, which was incorrect. The transit system then released the report after WFAE reminded the city it had to under the state’s public records law.

Unlike what Mock said, the document showed that CATS did not follow the model to wherever it took.

“From what I’ve seen so far, the ridership projections that they are making are really suspect,” said Tober, who led CATS from 1998 to 2007.

A 'minor error'

When the federal government considers whether to fund a transit project, it considers two main factors.

The first: Whether the local transit system has enough money to help build and operate it.

The second: How many people will use it.

Over the summer, CATS said that the Silver Line route sharing the Blue Line and Gold Line tracks would have 20% more riders by 2050 than the line looping around the city, or the LPA. Mock characterized that as significant.

CATS considered having the Silver Line take a sharp turn to west, where it would merge onto the existing Lynx Blue Line tracks (shown above).
Steve Harrison/WFAE
CATS considered having the Silver Line take a sharp turn to west, where it would merge onto the existing Lynx Blue Line tracks (shown above).

In December, WSP told CATS that the Shared Blue Line route would have between 20% and 25% more riders than the LPA in a present-year forecast. It would also have the most passengers by 2050, though the projected difference was smaller, between 3% and 6%.

But a CATS presentation to City Council members in January showed that the Shared Blue Line route would have the least amount of passengers by 2050.

In response to a WFAE question, CATS acknowledged it made what it called a “minor error.”

Tober said getting ridership numbers wrong is a big deal.

“The ridership numbers drive, or help to drive, a big decision,” Tober said. “It’s a very big decision, with a lot of implications for the future. You better make darn sure you have the best ridership numbers you can get. Because that’s what the feds will expect.”

Only studying half of the line

When CATS released ridership projections for the Silver Line last summer, it reviewed the entire line, from Matthews to the airport. When it released new ridership projections in January, it only considered half of the line, from Matthews to uptown. CATS didn’t tell the public or City Council members about the switch — which made the route that loops around uptown appear better.

Mock says they only studied that half of the line because CATS plans to build it first. He also said studying two phases is complicated.

“It is a significant work effort to do the modeling,” he said. “(It) takes a long time to do.”

Tober said that doesn’t make sense.

“You need to get the whole system picture,” he said. “I’m very concerned about the ridership numbers that are being looked at right now.”

Changes to the bus network

WSP also took its initial ridership numbers and tweaked them based on projected changes to the CATS bus network. The idea is that the transit system would tweak bus routes to buses feed into the Silver Line and maximize ridership.

The consultant changed Route 9 on Central Avenue and Route 14 on Providence Road. WSP also created a new line that would run on Albemarle Road and feed into the Silver Line.

In its report to CATS, WSP included an analysis of how the bus changes would impact the LPA, which loops around uptown, as well as another option that would use the Gold Line exclusively to cross uptown.

There was no analysis of how the bus changes would impact the route that uses the Blue Line tracks, although the consultant gave CATS modified ridership numbers.

Mock was asked whether those updated Shared Blue Line numbers were real since there was no material showing how they were created. He said the consultant updated them later.

But that doesn’t appear to be correct, since there was no change from the internal report in December to the public presentation in January.

WSP declined to comment, saying it wasn’t authorized to speak on behalf of CATS.

What happened to economic development?

One of the most significant changes was to the routes’ projected economic development potential. The city is counting on the Silver Line to kick off a boom like in South End and north of uptown around the Blue Line.

When CATS switched to only studying the first phase, the route that shares the Blue Line tracks through uptown appeared to have less economic development potential.

It also appears that CATS ignored a large part of Belmont and Optimist Park that had been included in the earlier analyses. Discounting those blocks made the route skirting uptown look like it would bring more development.

‘More speculative’ projections than allowed

And finally, there was one overarching flaw.

For transit projects seeking federal funds, the government requires present-year ridership forecasts — an estimate of how many people would ride the new train now. The federal guidelines allow transit systems to also include a 10-year or 20-year forecast.

The Federal Transit Administration does not allow ridership forecasts nearly 30 years in the future, which is close to what CATS did for 2050.

Peter Rogoff, who led the Federal Transit Administration in the Obama administration, said that’s just too far out to be reliable.

“Whenever you are trying to justify a project you want to paint it in the most positive light,” said Rogoff. “But it’s noteworthy that the farther out you go into the future the more speculative your projections. And the FTA only goes out 10 or at the most 20 years for a reason.”

Worried about operating two trains on one line

Mock said even if the transit system made mistakes in the analysis, the differences aren’t that significant.

He said CATS began shifting to the route that loops around uptown not because of economic development concerns, but because it was worried about the operational challenges of operating two train lines on one rail line.

Though interlining is common in transit systems, Mock said CATS had concerns, such as finding room to turn Silver Line trains around on the Blue Line. He also said CATS was worried about having to redo a half-mile of Trade Street to ensure Silver Line trains weren’t slowed down by traffic or parked cars.

“It’s really about what markets you want to serve with the Silver Line,” Mock said. “Do you want to serve new and emerging markets or current markets?”

But former City Council member Eiselt said she doesn’t understand how the numbers — or the preferred route — changed. Eiselt said she has long been concerned that people won’t ride the Silver Line if it loops around uptown because the stations are too far from where most people work.

“There’s no good explanation as to why they reversed course,” she said.

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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.