Mar 23, 2023 - News

The extent of CATS’ dysfunction has put riders at risk amid a “culture of silence”

CATS Blue Line

The situation at Charlotte Area Transit System is worse than we thought.

  • We knew the bus system had seen its reputation eroded and its ridership dwindle. We knew drivers felt at risk of violence while on their routes.
  • And we recently learned that last May, the light rail derailed while 24 passengers were onboard because of a defect that exists across all 42 trains. CATS, which had deferred maintenance of the vehicles, kept the incident under wraps.

Now we’re learning that 37 light rail bridges and six parking decks are overdue for inspection.

  • Plus, CATS needs to “aggressively” work to order new buses since about 100 of 300 buses are over 12 years old, past their recommended usable age. Of those, more than half have surpassed the 15-year mark.

Driving the news: Brent Cagle, who stepped in as interim CATS CEO in December, shared these details Wednesday night during a meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Commission, CATS’ policy board.

An MTC meeting. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

“There will be other things that we will find that we need to correct,” Cagle said.

Why it matters: Light rail riders may have unknowingly put themselves at risk while riding the train over the past 10 months, and possibly longer.

  • CATS only recently submitted an acceptable “corrective action plan” to the state Department of Transportation explaining how it would make the light rail safe.

By the numbers: Fixing the defects on the light rail trucks will involve shipping them to California. The repairs will cost an estimated $30 million and may take until January 2025, Cagle said.

  • Until then, CATS says the light rail is safe to ride. It reduced the maximum speed from 55 to 35 miles per hour and has put other technical measures in place.

The latest: The MTC is calling for an outside company to investigate CATS.

  • That would involve interviewing the operators who were on the derailed train, staffers in the city manager’s office and CATS executive staff, said county commissioner and MTC member Leigh Altman.
  • Altman said this should be an expedited process.
Photo: CATS

What they’re saying: There has been a “culture of silence” within CATS, Cagle said. Employees have been afraid to speak up about concerning issues such as delayed maintenance. He clarified the lack of maintenance was “not a money issue.” But he said he has not heard a satisfactory explanation for why it wasn’t done on time.

  • Although it must rectify the organization’s silence culture, CATS’ new leadership is also expected to hold people accountable for putting the community at risk. The CFO and COO both left the organization. Former CEO John Lewis resigned in November and took a job with TransPro, a transit consulting company that CATS has worked with.

Zoom out: The city has made sluggish progress on its ambitious transit plans like the Silver Line.

  • Charlotte mayor pro tem Braxton Winston wrote on Twitter Wednesday night that the CATS’ issues should not “deprioritize the need to develop comprehensive regional public transportation options.”
  • “Though our challenges are vast, the impact of a great system will be extraordinary,” he continued.

What’s next: CATS is hiring a contractor to “immediately” inspect the bridges and parking garages, Cagle said.

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