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'It's been a roller-coaster ride' | CATS CEO addresses challenges, long-term transit plan

On Flashpoint, John Lewis talks about recent challenges at CATS and long-term transit plans.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The CEO of Charlotte Area Transit System told WCNC Charlotte his agency rebounded from a summer staffing slump that lead to unreliable public transit.

"It's been a roller-coaster ride.  But I'm so proud of our employees," John Lewis said.

Amid union negotiations this summer, CATS struggled with staffing shortages that lead to service delays and subsequent schedule changes for riders.    According to CATS, the private contractor that manages the agency's operations has reached a tentative deal with its union.

RELATED: CATS sees significant drop in missed trips following route changes

"We've made significant increases in salaries and wages for employees, and I think that will help us tremendously to fill that gap that we still have," Lewis said.

In addition, Lewis said a reduction in some services in August allowed CATS to provide a more reliable commute for riders.  He said he hopes all service will return by the end of 2022.  

"We will add service incrementally, as we're able to.  So we're looking forward to that by the end of this year," Lewis said. 

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Amid the recent problems, Charlotte leaders are looking to expand transit and transportation options.  In 2020, the Charlotte Moves task force, whose members were appointed by the mayor, released a sweeping $13.5B transit and transportation plan.  It included plans for an east-west silver light rail line, commuter rail to north Mecklenburg County, greenways and more.

"People think traffic is bad now.  Imagine what it'll be when 400-thousand more people move into this option over the next 10-15 years," Lewis said.

Since 2000, action on the transit plan has stalled.  The mayor's task force suggested a one-cent sales tax increase to pay for the plan, which require the approval of state lawmakers and eventually voters.

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"It doesn't really matter what the content of the plan is if there's not money to pay for it. So I think that that's going to be really crucial," Ely Portillo, Director of Research Engagement at UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute.

Portillo suggested city leaders might choose to pare back the silver line, which goes east to west from Belmont to Matthews.

"This is a majority of the cost in that plan. It's been estimated at more than $8 billion," Portillo said.

Lewis said once his agency is back to pre-pandemic staffing and operations, he'll be working with local and state lawmakers.   He said the 2018 blue line extension is an example of how CATS can operate under budget and ahead of schedule.

"We know how to be good stewards of the public dollar," Lewis said.

SEE THE FULL INTERVIEW SUNDAY AT 11 A.M. ON FLASHPOINT, ONLY ON WCNC CHARLOTTE.

Flashpoint is a weekly in-depth look at politics in Charlotte, North Carolina, South Carolina, and beyond with host Ben Thompson. Listen to the podcast weekly.
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