Getting CATS back on track

This blog post covers the second half of the April 3 Charlotte City Council Transportation, Planning and Development Committee meeting, including a CATS update and UDO text amendments portion of the meeting. For a recap of the mobility update from the first part of the meeting, please see this blog post.

by Hope Wright, Advocacy Manager

CATS update

Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones opened the CATS update portion of the meeting by listing his five strategic actions to get CATS back on course. Read last week’s Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) blog post for context on why Jones proposes these actions. The five actions are:

  1. Ask the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) to do an off-cycle review of CATS. The most recent review took place in 2022.
  2. Refer the TP&D Committee to assemble a working group, which would complete a comprehensive overview of CATS.
  3. Suspend the search for a new CATS CEO for at least 6 months to stabilize the department.
  4. Focus on asset management within CATS, including bringing in expertise and staff capacity from other City departments.
  5. Review how the city manager’s office conducts oversight and facilitates open lines of communication.


Bikers on the Rail Trail with Light Rail Train

The City Manager’s office made recommendations to improve CATS operations and safety. (image: City of Charlotte)

Council Member (CM) Johnson spoke first in response to the presentation, requesting monthly updates from Jones and CATS on the ongoing corrective action plan. She also expressed concern about the culture at CATS and asked for more information about the whistleblower policy in an effort to establish more transparency.

CM Graham commended interim CEO Cagle on prioritizing day-to-day operations and agreed with CM Driggs that the city cannot ask residents to vote for a mobility tax if we cannot reliably operate the basic system already in place. He stressed the need to keep everything in perspective and focus on fixing what is broken.

Graham then asked how an FTA review would differ from a third party review and if the FTA option is in line with the MTC recent unanimous vote (at their March 26th meeting) to conduct a third party review. Jones offered that the FTA would not have to overcome the learning curve that other parties may encounter. CMs Graham and Anderson both urged frequent communication between City Council, CATS, MTC, and other entities.

CM Johnson then stepped back in and asked for more clarity on what an FTA review would encompass. According to Cagle, the review would look closely at maintenance records, status of good repair across the fleet, and financial documents. CATS would ask FTA to look into other items such as the May 2022 light rail derailment and staff issues as deemed appropriate.

Both CM Driggs and Jones indicated that they want to reach alignment with the MTC going forward and suggest achieving this alignment through a working group of council members who will have ongoing interaction with Cagle to resolve issues outlined in memos from NCDOT.

The CATS update ended with another concerning revelation of operational deficiencies at CATS. Cagle explained that the night of Friday, March 31st, NCDOT inspectors, acting on an anonymous tip, found that the rail operations control center (ROCC) had only one controller on duty for 2-3 hours. Regulations require at least two rail controllers and one chief rail controller to be on duty at all times. Cagle is now working with CATS HR to create a better compensation package for controllers, but with current low staffing levels, controllers are being told to work mandatory overtime until more staff can be hired. According to Cagle, even with aggressive recruitment tactics, this could take 3-6 months due to the technical nature of the jobs. He will be sharing this information with City Council and MTC as well.

This news left council members troubled. CM Mitchell asked for a timeline spanning from the derailment in May 2022 until the end of March 2023. CM Johnson said that this news further proves the need for a third party review, stating, “we don’t know what we don’t know.”

UDO text amendments

Alyson Craig quickly finished the meeting with comments on four text amendments that will come before council next week. Two of the amendments are minor wording “cleanups” and two are policy-oriented. One of the policy text amendments will limit drive-throughs in multi-family, inter-commercial zoning districts, and the other will limit landfills in residential areas.

Craig also noted that Community Area Planning workshops began last week. The workshops are starting in West Charlotte and “going around the clock” to end in South Charlotte. She asked that council members encourage their constituents to attend, as the first three were not well-attended. Sign up for your neighborhood’s CAP workshop here.

Our take

Like everyone who attended the meeting, we are deeply concerned about the current state of CATS. We appreciate Cagle’s transparency and best efforts to right the ship. However, share CM Johnson’s concern that an FTA review alone is the best way to investigate what has gone wrong at CATS. As Jones mentioned, the FTA completed a review of CATS in 2022. Yet it’s clear that the FTA’s review did not fully identify the myriad deficiencies at CATS that have since come to light.

We agree with CM Johnson that an independent, third-party review as the MTC requested is the best way to gather accurate information about CATS that will help it grow in a healthier direction. Without a clear picture of the technical oversights and workplace culture problems that have existed the past few years, we will not be able to, as CM Graham put it, “fix what is broken.”

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