Apr 20, 2023 - News

Exclusive: Ex-CATS CEO John Lewis speaks out about transit agency’s woes

Former CATS CEO John Lewis. Photo courtesy of the city of Charlotte

Bureaucratic red tape is partly to blame for the recent troubles of the Charlotte Area Transit System, former CATS CEO John Lewis tells Axios.

  • “It got to the point where I finally felt like, I have all of the responsibility and no authority to deal with the responsibility,” he says. “That was the reason for my resignation.”

Why it matters: Lewis announced he was leaving the organization in October. At the time, the transit system was struggling with ridership, reliability and staffing.

What’s happening: In an interview, Lewis accused the city’s procurement office, which he had no authority over, of not filling CATS’ requests promptly. CATS goes to the city division to pursue contracts for rail repairs, bus parts and even cleaning supplies.

He says more than a third of buses were out of service, waiting for parts when he left, because of procurement delays. It contributed to the deferred maintenance of light rail vehicles, too, the former CEO says.

Driving the news: Lewis says he believes the city knows CATS’ problems lie within its procurement process and therefore can solve them. He says he’s partly speaking out now to correct some of the criticisms about his former leadership.

  • “I put seven years of my life in that. I want that agency to succeed. I want the city to succeed,” says Lewis, who still lives in Charlotte and now works for a transportation consulting company.

Zoom in: A procurement report shows there were 134 active service requests from CATS as of November.

  • A request for the federal mandatory bridge inspections that were missed was in process for more than 200 days, the documents show.
  • After the procurement process, many contracts still require city council approval. After that, supply chain issues can prolong the time it takes to obtain mechanical parts.

The other side: Assistant city manager Brent Cagle, now serving as the interim CEO of CATS, is responsible for the General Services Department, which the City Procurement division falls within. He tells Axios he disagrees with Lewis’ assessment.

  • “The other city departments successfully navigate procurements without these same issues,” Cagle says.
  • He says CATS was running its own additional procurement process that was ineffective. He doesn’t think CATS was planning well enough ahead for expiring contracts.

Cagle says the CATS CFO met monthly with city procurement to go over priorities. If contracts were pending for 1,000 days, “I’d have to imagine that the CATS CFO was never prioritizing that.”

Go deeper: Charlotte had evidence of CATS shortcomings in months-old audits

Flashback: In 2019, the CATS procurement process was moved to a central city department. Cagle says this was in response to known issues in CATS, including unpaid vendors and purchases made without contracts. Lewis says involving the city created a situation where employees who impacted CATS service were no longer in his chain of command.

  • “During the pandemic, it became really obvious that the system was broken down, (but) we were continuing to operate,” Lewis says. “There was nobody in city hall but a handful of people.”
  • In his annual reviews, Lewis says he told the city manager that procurement challenges would impact the transit system’s reliability. (Axios has submitted a records request for these memos.)

“If not for the pandemic and the decrease in ridership that was associated, we wouldn’t have been able to provide service,” he says.

Almost a year ago, a Blue Line light rail train went off its tracks due to a faulty axle bearing. All passengers were able to get off safely. N.C. Department of Transportation said delayed maintenance contributed to the derailment. Lewis says CATS never hid the incident.

  • CATS expected to start its midlife overhaul of the light rail vehicles in 2021, just before they turned 15, Lewis says. But because of procurement delays resulting in maintenance issues, Lewis says CATS could not ship off multiple railcars at a time to manufacturer Siemens in California for repairs. If it had, he says CATS wouldn’t have been able to make service.
  • Cagle says he was told the overhaul was delayed because of “ineffective processes inside of CATS finance.”

Lewis compared the “minor” derailment to a flat car tire. “The whole train didn’t come off the rail. Of the six wheels on one component, one wheel came off,” he says. “You fix the tire, and you move on.”

  • He says he emailed the Metropolitan Transit Commission members and informed NCDOT of the incident. He did not message city council, he says, because it is not in his reporting structure. The city manager reports to council.
  • No MTC members have said they received a message about the derailment.

CATS meets monthly with NCDOT to discuss incidents and corrective action plans. Lewis says the derailment did not come up again for months. In the fall, NCDOT approved CATS Agency Safety Plan. An Axios review of the plan shows it increased the maximum light rail speed to 66 miles per hour — after the May derailment. NCDOT later ordered CATS to reduce the speed to 35 miles per hour in response to the derailment.

  • An Axios review of records between CATS and NCDOT over the last year shows little evidence of correspondence about the derailment until February.

Many of issues CATS is facing, Lewis believes, stem from the confusing structure of the organization.

Zoom out: CATS is a city department. But it reports to the regional MTC board for policy and seeks approval from city council for many financial matters. Mayor Vi Lyles has called for creating a regional authority for CATS in recent months.

  • Lewis says he has been advocating to turn CATS into an independent organization for years with a single oversight board and the “ability to deal with the challenges and problems without the immense bureaucracy of the city government.”

For example, Lewis believes he could have prevented many staffing issues if he had more authority to improve pay or give COVID benefits earlier. He says CATS workers, who were interacting with the public daily in the early days of the pandemic, felt like they were treated the same as employees who were in an office.

  • “With the federal (COVID) money that we were getting at that time, we were flush with money,” Lewis says. “But because it was a city HR function, the city said ‘we can’t allow you to pay your employees more than what other employees are getting.'”
  • “CATS … is not competitive from a transit standpoint,” he adds. “We routinely get new employees, train them, hire them, and then they go elsewhere.”

The bottom line: I asked Lewis the question on many people’s minds: Who is accountable, and does he feel accountable?

  • “Everyone is accountable,” Lewis tells me. “Should I have gone above the city manager’s head? Should I have gone to council? Should I have gone to the mayor? I mean, there’s always that second guessing of what happened. But at that time, we were just trying to keep service.”

Lewis says he was put off by the city opting to conduct a management review of CATS instead of addressing alleged procurement problems. “You realize no one’s interested in fixing it,” he says. “You’re on an island by yourself.”

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