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'Not a rubber stamp': Mecklenburg towns and county demand transit changes from Charlotte

Change could be coming to the Metropolitan Transit Commission, which helps govern the Charlotte Area Transit System
Steve Harrison
Change could be coming to the Metropolitan Transit Commission, which helps govern the Charlotte Area Transit System.

The mayors of six Mecklenburg towns, along with County Commissioner Leigh Altman, sent a letter to the city of Charlotte on Tuesday, demanding more power in how transit decisions are made.

The group wants to revamp the governing structure for the Metropolitan Transit Commission, which was formed in the late 1990s to help govern how the half-cent sales tax for transit is spent. It would be a major change for the Charlotte Area Transit System, which has been run as a city department.

The dispute started earlier this year after a Lynx Blue Line train derailed while passengers were on board.

No one was hurt, but the North Carolina Department of Transportation chastised CATS for not doing the required maintenance on its light-rail vehicles. It ordered CATS to place a 35-mph speed limit on all trains, which is still in effect.

The state also threatened to shut down either the Lynx Blue Line or the Gold Line streetcar if CATS didn’t have at least two people in the Rail Operations Control Center at all times.

The MTC voted to ask the city of Charlotte to hire an independent third party to investigate the problem. The city refused and instead asked the federal government to do a review.

That angered the MTC members, who felt the city was ignoring them. In an email to her constituents, Altman said the organization should not be a “rubber stamp.”

In Tuesday's letter to the city, Altman and the mayors wrote that “over the past year, it has become increasingly clear that the parties’ original agreement did not provide the MTC sufficient authority to direct and oversee CATS’s operations or to ensure its accountability to the taxpayers.”

"I think a lot of the members of the MTC were really questioning their role," Altman said. "Since of course, it was the first time in many years that we had sort of developed an opinion different from the city of Charlotte. And on that one occasion, it appeared we were overruled."

The original MTC agreement expires next summer. The town mayors and Altman have proposed extending it another decade — but only if the city makes certain concessions.

They want the city to clarify that “the governance of CATS rests with the MTC” and that the mayors will be included in picking a new CATS chief executive and setting the transit agency’s budget. A mediator would settle disputes between the two bodies.

It’s unclear what would happen if the two sides can’t come to an agreement. It’s possible the Mecklenburg towns could push to keep the transit sales tax money that’s generated in their towns and create their own transit systems. The half-cent sales tax is the biggest source of funding for CATS.

The fight over the MTC comes at a delicate time for CATS, which is struggling to rebuild ridership and trust after a decade-long slide in passengers made worse by the pandemic and a series of safety mishaps. Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles and City Council member Ed Driggs are trying to build support for a $13.5 billion transit plan, which includes billions to build the Silver Line, a light-rail line from Matthews to the airport. They have proposed creating a regional transit authority that includes neighboring counties.

Driggs said he wants to work with Altman and the mayors to come up with a plan that works for everyone.

In a system where the MTC had most or all of the power, he said he’s worried that would disenfranchise Charlotte, which has nearly 900,000 residents. The six towns have a combined total of less than 180,000 people.

“So I hope we can reach an arrangement soon with the mayors,” Driggs said. “And then get back to the serious work to advance the transportation plan.”

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said in a statement that "we are reviewing the proposed amendments provided today by some members of the MTC regarding the future of public transit governance in our county. As I have previously stated publicly, there are two principles that we have broad agreement on. One is the need to update the interlocal agreement and the second is that a regional transit authority is in our future. I am in general agreement with many of the sentiments expressed in the letter that I received today from the town mayors and county MTC delegate."

The MTC meets on Wednesday night.

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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.