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monsoon

CATS - Government Bureaucracy at its Worst

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CATS just put out a new high cost glossy brochure detailing their plans for mass transit. Note there is no mention of the standard bus system and I will point out why that is important later. CATS currently receives more than $72 million/year from the mass transit tax and that amount continues tor rise since it is a sales tax.

In this brochure, they list all of the nice plans for passenger trains in the county but then in the small print we have the following dates for implementation:

  • South Light Rail - Fall 2007 <--- They still can't give a date for this even though its been under construction for years.

  • North Commuter Rail, one way service - 2012

  • University Light Rail - 2013

  • Center City Street Car to Rosa Parks - 2018

  • North Commuter Rail, two way service - 2019

  • Center City Street Car to Plaza Midwood/Eastland - 2023

  • Southeast BRT or LRT full completion - 2026

  • West Streetcar - 2034

Note that realistically we won't see another rail line built in this county for at least another 5 years with most of the remaining projects occurring more than a decade from now. Considering that CATS had more than a 50% schedule slip on the South LRT, I think it is reasonable to conclude that we won't see any new rail lines go into operation in this county for close to 10 years.

Now during this period and if the transit tax survives a re-vote, CATS will collect something in the order of $2.5 billion from the transit tax yet daily ridership is only projected, at best to be 72,000 people. In other words, it will take CATS 23 more years and $2.5 billion dollars to build a rail transit system that only has a projected ridership of 72,000 and some of that includes rides on buses. As a comparison, the 2 line, badly funded, MARTA system in Atlanta has a daily ridership of 250,000. This is a pretty bad deal for Charlotte if you ask me. With these kinds of specs don't expect to see many changes in this city in regards to getting people out of their cars and this place becoming more transit friendly.

The reason of course that it is taking so long to build the system, and a system with such poor specs for moving people, is that CATS is spending most of the transit tax money, the vast majority of it, on it's current operations. Furthermore all of the above projects depend upon heavy handouts from both the state and federal governments and they simply won't happen without them. Somehow, we voted in a new tax to build rail transit but scant little of this money is being spent on rail transit. Instead it is being spent to run the buses which is something the CTA did prior to Tober and the creation of CATS. Tober, the head of CATS, has created a large government bureaucracy that would seem to be more self serving than anything else. We get a glossy nice brochure showing all these nice rail transit systems, but the reality is that it will take close to 30 years to build it, and when it is built, it won't move many people.

I don't expect this situation to change because it has become the status quo for transit here in Charlotte, and constant failures and delays are explained away with the statement "other transit agencies do the same thing". Somehow, in light of this analysis, it would seem to me that it might be a good idea if the transit tax is voted down. It will force the city and the county to re-examine the role of CATS in this county and how we might do a better job than the really poor plan for building rail as shown above.

What do you think?

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I could not disagree more strongly. A few thoughts:

* Yes, much of the transit tax is used for bus service, but thanks to that tax, bus service levels have increased significantly. Basically, the bus system is far, far bigger than it was before the transit tax, and if the transit tax went away and no alternative funding was put in place, the bus system would shrink dramatically.

* Yes, it's reasonable to conclude that there won't be any new rail lines (other than the commuter line near Mooresville) because of anti-transit activists- that's not CATS' fault. The other lines are only under consideration, and only preliminary efforts to get them approved and built have been done. Unless we want government building all sorts of projects without public consent, feedback and careful planning, it'll take time. And if the transit tax were allocated to building new lines more than running busses, then the bus service would be gutted; that's not good (and people would be claiming that public transit for low-income people was being destroyed in favor of rail lines for wealthy commuters).

* Perhaps the CATS transit lines won't have the same ridership as MARTA in Atlanta does. Nor will it have the same ridership as Boston, NY, etc.; we could go on and on. But what CATS will have is enough ridership to make at least some of the rail lines, such as the south line that's nearing completion, be considered to be a much better investment than nearly every other rail line, except a few, in the country that's been proposed. The criteria to get federal funding for rail infrastructure are extremely stringent, and plenty of proposed lines, such as the Raleigh-Durham one, didn't make the cut. The one CATS wanted- the south line- did. Speaks for itself.

* If the transit tax is shot down, then the bus service will be gutted, or other taxes, such as property taxes will be raised.

* Sidenote: yes, the opening date for the south line isn't set in stone- because CATS is probably going to be able to open it or at least part of it BEFORE the current proposed opening time, not because of delays.

Count me as a lifelong Republican who will definitely support keeping the transit tax and who will definitely favor building new lines that are cost-efficient.

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Well voting down the CMS bonds didn't really do anything. I don't think voting things down always makes a difference. If more concerned people showed up to the transit meetings, spoke, and made their voices heard, maybe things would change. The problem is most people are uneducated about transit. Regardless of the schedule, I think the sales tax is very important (and I also think the ridership projections are low).

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^The voting down of the CMS bonds did shake up things quite a bit and the ramifications of that are yet to be felt. However, unlike CATS, the school system is run by an elected set of officials which unfortunately are still voted in time and time again by the voters. In addition there is no dedicated tax to run the schools so they have to justify themselves to the county commission each year.

CATS in comparison has no similar oversight and the tax they receive is dedicated. This is the big big difference from the school system.

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CATS in comparison has no similar oversight and the tax they receive is dedicated. This is the big big difference from the school system.

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I think voting down on the Transit Tax is a bad idea personally, and here are my reasons why.

*If the tax gets voted down, it will only further prolong the development of the other lines. Im sure most cities with extensive rail & light rail plans did not happen over night.

*If the voters don't support the tax, then why should the Government give CATS any additional funding? If the tax does not pass it will only hurt our chances of gaining any additional Federal money.

*Comparing, or trying to gain the same amount or riders as Atlanta is not what we should be focusing on. As long as we can maintain a good rider per capita ratio.

My suggestion for CATS and the City of Charlotte would be to look into the feasibility of gaining some type of private sector funding, through sources of advertising on the trains and at stations. They could lease small vendor concessions for news/magazine stands at stations. If they could implement green technologies to cut operating cost, etc. They can use that saved money to help fund the future projects. These ideas may not make them a lot of money, but anything to help lower the cost needed to fund the future lines would undoubtably help.

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How do the following proposed projects compare to CATS?

* I-485 loop- way over budget and it's taken decades to do

* CMS- spend tons of money for underperformance

* Old coliseum- lasted only 19 years before being demolished

* Dee Dee Harris's Saks Fifth Avenue- still a hole full of stagnant water, bugs and weeds despite grandiose talk of even a Ritz-Carlton

I wouldn't say CATS is thus "government bureaucracy at its worst", and even compared to the private sector it's not the worst (cf. Ms. Harris).

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^Dee Dee Harris's project was a private one on private property. Has absolutely no bearing on this discussion. I think the other ones can be debated but I am not sure they suffer from the same issues with the CATS plan. For example I am not sure the 485 project is late or over budget since it was designed to be a 30 year project, CMS has been addressed above, and the Charlotte Coliseum served the purpose it was built for.

CATS on the other hand has led many to believe that we are getting rail transit in this county when the reality is that it won't happen for decades and what we will have will do little to change the road centric planning that we have now since it will carry so few people. In the meantime we will be taxed billions for this empty promise.

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First, let me say that I think you're one of the smartest posters on urbanplanet with a lot of insight, and I greatly respect your comments. I always enjoy reading your posts. That said, I think in this case, you're being overly harsh and even a bit dramatic.

Let me explain why I think this.

1. CATS has expended a decent portion of its sales tax money on bus service. There's nothing wrong with this. In fact, the expansion of CATS 77X, 81X, etc routes has brought a whole new group of people in the county into being transit users beyond the traditional transit constituency of the urban poor. This was good for 2 reasons: once the sales tax passed, people began seeing the benefits quickly, which showed that CATS was doing something positive with the $$$. It also began broadening the constituency for transit in Meck county in general by creating services that work for people at a variety of socioeconomic demographics. Transit in Charlotte is now for everyone.

2. Please, please, forget the Federal ridership estimates. The Feds have been wrong and wronger, again and again, on transit ridership, consistenly underestimating light rail in Denver, Salt Lake, and Minneapolis by thousands of daily riders. Denver's system ridership figure expected by the FTA prior to opening of the latest line turned out to be 67% too low. I wouldn't blow my nose with FTA ridership results. Let's take a look at the South corridor 6 months to a year after opening. I think there's a good chance the Feds will have blown this one, too.

3. Comparisons with MARTA. MARTA has heavy rail, underground, through a larger Central Business District and 20 years of existence. It is easily the worst-performing heavy rail in the US with a transfer point. That the system carries that LITTLE for a heavy rail is actually an embarrassing testament to how poorly heavy rail works in Atlanta.

4. Six years between operating dates for South and University Light Rail is not bad at all, and likely to happen, assuming the transit tax holds. Keep in mind that a lot of the spacing of construction is to help manage debt service ratios of building new things while operating existing services plus the South corridor. Since the U-line will join with the South corridor, there are efficiencies built into the process. The maintenance facility is already built--- there will not need to be another one. The city will have gained experience in how to manage construction from both the successful and unsuccessful work on the south line. Public scrutiny and experience are likely to make the next extension a better managed project. The ridiculous FTA process is less stringent (and more realistic with ridership estimates!) for extensions than it is with new lines.

I understand why you think CATS is mismanaged and that Ron Tober needs to go-- that may be the case. But that doesn't mean the plan, which was decided upon by a much larger group of people other than Tober, is a bad one. Also, when you look at other cities that have a successful LRT system, even Portland, you'll see that there are almost 2 bus riders for every train rider. The bus systems are integral feeders to the system.

The bottom line is this- if you want good transit in Charlotte, you need to keep the tax. If you don't keep the tax, this plan is toast and you can be sure getting the money back to do anything right will be very, very, hard. The city will easily lose another 10 years on all those dates, and inflation of the costs of materials will compound the effect and probably sap another 5 years off the dates, if anything ever gets built again.

Vote for keeping the transit tax. You can be sure the MTC will be pushing better oversight in light of the tax repeal movement, even if they win.

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Re: I-485, look what a quick Observer search turned up (particularly the last article):

Charlotte Observer - December 4, 2006 - 2B METRO

OPENING ON I-485 PUSHED BACK AGAIN, REPAIRS, FINAL INSPECTION NEEDED ON 2 NEW EXITS NEW TARGET IS FOR ABOUT MID-DECEMBER HOT TOPIC OUTERBELT

Charlotte Observer - October 2, 2006 - 1B METRO

NEXT I-485 LEG TO OPEN IN NOV., 2 INTERCHANGES ALMOST DONE IN NORTHWEST CHARLOTTE PROJECT 8.35 PERCENT OVER ITS $25.5 MILLION BUDGET, WAS SUPPOSED TO BE FINISHED IN JULY '05

Charlotte Observer - July 13, 2006 - 1B METRO

READY FOR CONSTRUCTION TO START ON THE FINAL SECTION OF I-485? YOU'LL LIKELY HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL, 2013 1-YEAR DELAY PROPOSED FOR NEW STRETCH AND SOUTHERN WIDENING BECAUSE OF MONEY SHORTAGE, RISING COSTS AND RIVAL PROJECTS

Charlotte Observer - February 12, 2006 - 1A MAIN

I-485: ON THE ROAD TO SPIRALING COSTS, $863 MILLION PROJECT NOW TOTALS $1.2 BILLION - WITH MORE TO COME

Including Dee Dee in the list of disastrous projects is just to show that even the private sector can easily overpromise and botch things- not just government agencies.

Sidenote- in NYC, the Second Avenue subway line is finally moving ahead with more planning- over 30 YEARS after construction started, and it hasn't been finished or even half-way built. Other transit agencies also have egg all over their faces.

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You are making the "everyone else does it" argument in CATS defense which I addressed above.

In any case, if your standard for CATS success is doing better than the NCDOT then I will suggest that my original comments are on the mark. I have also argued on this site for years the NCDOT does not serve the needs of the people in the urban areas of this state and wastes too much money, and has misguided projects and priority. The best thing for the urban areas in this state would be to breakup the NCDOT and return control of road building to the counties. This is exactly the remedy that I prescribe for CATS which has the same mentality and results from their plans.

Thanks for pointing out this analogy.

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[*]North Commuter Rail, one way service - 2012

[*]North Commuter Rail, two way service - 2019

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You are making the "everyone else does it" argument in CATS defense which I addressed above.

In any case, if your standard for CATS success is doing better than the NCDOT then I will suggest that my original comments are on the mark. I have also argued on this site for years the NCDOT does not serve the needs of the people in the urban areas of this state and wastes too much money, and has misguided projects and priority. The best thing for the urban areas in this state would be to breakup the NCDOT and return control of road building to the counties. This is exactly the remedy that I prescribe for CATS which has the same mentality and results from their plans.

Thanks for pointing out this analogy.

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In the most recent presentations I have seen at the MTC they have stated they would start with two way service. Of course this can always change...but that is what CATS is going with now.

I don't think that the plan itself is flawed. A lot of engineering work has been done just to get us to this point. At the same time there is enough flexability in the plan to allow changes to be made in the future to make it a better system. This is Charlotte which abandoned the grid street system decades ago. It is VERY hard to build an effective transit system of any kind with the street network that we currently have. I think it is a minor miracle that we are even able to build the South LRT line.

Something to consider for the future and I don't know if this is even legal here but we could copy the Vancouver model for the remaining lines. The Vancouver model has a private company design, build, partially finance, operate and maintain the rapid transit lines. What this means is that the private company in charge of building the line would be responsible for any cost overruns. Something like this would take most of the heat off of CATS for future lines.

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Since CATS only designed this project to have just one track then two trains can't occupy the track at the same times in opposite directions. Thus the service will be in 2012, if they build it by then, several trains leaving Davidson in the morning, 30 minutes apart, and dropping off people in downtown. In the evening they would return back to Davidson. During the day CATS will run the trains back and forth a few times. This is why ridership is so low in this line. In 2019 they will add the signals which will allow trains to to travel in opposite directions, but one will pull off the track to let the other pass. There will be no weekend service.

IMO, this is not a very good design point for this line and completely misses the TOD opportunities that would come to bear if they built a more robust system. This is the only line where significant amounts of greenfields still remain in this county and we can choose to develop it around the automobile, or around transit. With the design that Tober has submitted, I feel it will be the automobile that will win out.

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In the most recent presentations I have seen at the MTC they have stated they would start with two way service. Of course this can always change...but that is what CATS is going with now....

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CATS is planning one-way service but will do two-way IF it has enough money to do so- both options are on the table.

Metro.m, you always have good insights and vision- so feel free to criticize CATS, but how about describing what kind of system you'd have CATS operate, keeping within budget constraints?

Personally I like uptownliving's Vancouver suggestion- I just want transit where the benefits outweigh the costs; I don't care which entity runs it.

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This is not what is published in the brochure that CATS just put out. If these are not the plans then CATS doesn't know what they are doing apparently and/or they are not paying attention to the MTC. Either case only makes the point they are not doing their job.

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Since CATS only designed this project to have just one track then two trains can't occupy the track at the same times in opposite directions. Thus the service will be in 2012, if they build it by then, several trains leaving Davidson in the morning, 30 minutes apart, and dropping off people in downtown. In the evening they would return back to Davidson. During the day CATS will run the trains back and forth a few times. This is why ridership is so low in this line. In 2019 they will add the signals which will allow trains to to travel in opposite directions, but one will pull off the track to let the other pass. There will be no weekend service.

IMO, this is not a very good design point for this line and completely misses the TOD opportunities that would come to bear if they built a more robust system. This is the only line where significant amounts of greenfields still remain in this county and we can choose to develop it around the automobile, or around transit. With the design that Tober has submitted, I feel it will be the automobile that will win out.

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^I agree. It's the result of a bureaucratic process put forth by a management "doing it's job", vs a proactive organization interested in maximizing our resources to provide alternative transit in this county.

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This is a bad idea. People don't want to be "trapped" having to wait for the right time to get back on the train. If you're going to do it, do it right the first time.

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^I agree. It's the result of a bureaucratic process put forth by a management "doing it's job", vs a proactive organization interested in maximizing our resources to provide alternative transit in this county.

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CATS was created when the tax was approved. It's creation in it's present form was flawed IMO, they suffer from terrible leadership, there is little accountability to the people who are paying the tax, and there is nobody that seems to own the problem of alternative transit in this county. It's not even clear cut on who controls what happens with the tax money. CATS via Tober, the Charlotte City Council and the MTC all have different agendas and no clear cut roles in this entire process.

As a result, you have a system designed and approved by committee that is comprised of politicians and seasoned lets protect my job and empire bureaucrats. It it is going to take 30 years to build a system that only moves 76K people/day and in the process they will collect billions in taxes. It's a sorry and sad state of affairs when better alternatives could be had. I no longer suppport this process.

And also CATS does not run an effective bus system in my book. In many parts of town they run empty buses because they don't have the correct routes and schedules to meet the needs of the people. CATS lost ridership on their buses since last August and is only now recovering.

The only way to fix it is for the people to repeal the tax and send them back to the drawing board to address the issue. Else we won't get anything better.

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Just curious, when did you become opposed to the transit tax? You posted an announcement "Repeal Transit Tax Petition" and in it you say how important the tax is to the future of our region and if repealed, it will cause our taxes to rise (which is probably true). I can see your point (for example new leadership/getting rid of Tober and plenty of bus stations with no sidewalk access) but I honestly do not think that the only way to fix it is to repeal the tax. I still feel more change would happen if people actually went to the meeting and let their voices be heard. Taking away a critical piece of money is only going to put us furthur behind.

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