Cover Story: Charlotte transit in transition

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Charlotte transit in transition.  A new CEO tapped to head the Charlotte Transit System.  She's Carolyn Flowers and she will oversee everything from buses, to streetcars, to LYNX light rail projects.  So with a changing of power and decreasing revenue at CATS - what happens to all of those projects?

In tapping Carolyn Flowers Monday city leaders say they've found a person who's well ingrained in transit, serving long time in the Los Angeles Transit System, and someone who knows how to count pennies.. she's the former budget director for Beverly Hills.

Charlotte will put all that to the test.

CATS new CEO Carolyn Flowers all smiles Monday.. but when she takes the helm in the first of the year she's assuming arguably one of the toughest jobs in local government.

Two years after successfully launching its first light rail system.. Charlotte is looking at (because of the recession) declining revenue from the half-cent sales tax, which helps fund the trains and buses, while at the same time facing an ambitious 2030 plan that calls for expanding the transit system from the LYNX Line into four more corridors.

Charlotte City manager Curt Walton admitted as much at this morning's news conference.

He said, "We are in a community now that all aspects of the community all areas of the community want transit.. and they want it really fast."

But how to pay for it?

The next two lines being considered, a light rail line to University City and a commuter rail line to the Lake Norman area expected to cost together more than 1-point-3 billion dollars.

And third rail line a streetcar project.. being proposed through the city of Charlotte.. expected to run 457 million dollars.

CATS new CEO said a review of the 2030 plan will be one of her first priorities.

"We may be slowing down the plan," says Flowers, "we may be deferring or we may be able to accelerate parts of the plan depending on what the economy looks like."

In Los Angeles Flowers was the Chief Operating officer and oversaw a bus system more than ten times the size of Charlotte's.

A review of the L.A. Times web site found just one story in which Flowers name was mentioned.. a story from a year ago.. when riders were complaining about buses running late.  The city hired 10 supervisors in a bid to boost its on-time performance.

When she takes over CATS Flowers won't be able to fall back on Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory.  He along with Matthews Mayor Lee Myers another veteran of the Metropolitan Transit Commission retire from the governing board this week.

But supporters say there's a good team in place to keep the system running.

"We've had a good first start," says McCrory, "but now is not the time to stop. Now is the time to continue to prepare for the next 50 years on how we're going to grow as a community."

Critics of transit spending say they're encouraged that the city's gone outside and found a new executive director who may have a new approach.

One critic told us they hope for a re-set button.. someone who will come in and take a critical look at what we can afford and what is our highest priority for transit.

As far as a decision on which transit system should be built next.. that decision is about a year off.

Flowers starts right after the first of the year.  Her salary is 197-thousand-500 dollars.. about what her predecessor Keith Parker was making.