Charlotte’s bus system didn’t hold contractor accountable for poor performance, records show

WBTV Investigates: Charlotte Mayor says city can recover from its unreliable track record
Republican lawmakers refuse to approve the tax hike, pointing to the continued failed bus system.
Published: Nov. 10, 2022 at 5:41 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The contractor running Charlotte’s bus system has consistently failed to meet important performance metrics for months and sometimes years, internal CATS records reveal.

WBTV requested documents related to the performance of CATS’ Bus Operations Division earlier this year. The agency produced the records after a months-long delay.

Among other things, the records show CATS leaders only started demanding more accountability and better bus service after WBTV’s reporting on the problems plaguing the bus system.

The records include performance reports on the Bus Operations Division from January through August 2022. That includes critical measurements important to the bus’s reliability for passengers who rely on the system to get around Charlotte.

The records show there were 37,638 missed bus trips between January and July and the division failed to hit its goal by a gargantuan margin. The performance standard outlined in the contract was just 260 missed trips each month but in FY22 CATS averaged 2,942 per month.

From January – July 2022, the bus operations division failed to meet the standards for on-time performance six out of seven months and averaged just 83.7 percent on-time performance for all fiscal year 2022.

The volume of missed trips and late buses is the reason WBTV first started reporting on bus reliability issues, after viewer Brian Williams shared his story of waiting for a bus to work that never showed up at his stop.

WBTV first spoke with Williams in February and interviewed him again this month after CATS CEO John Lewis announced he was resigning his position at the city to take a job in the private sector.

Williams said he called CATS routinely about his missing bus before taking his complaints to WBTV.

“Four or five days a week,” Williams said.

“I told them, my name is Brian, I’m going to call you every single day that I have to be homeless or that I can’t get to work.”

Williams’ story forces CATS’ hand

The CATS records obtained by WBTV show action was only taken after Williams’ story made it on TV in February.

Despite months of failures in hitting performance metrics in the contract, CATS only sent a letter to RATP Dev in March about its inability to service CATS passengers. The letter said “RATP Dev’s service has deteriorated with increases in open runs and excessive missed trips due to lack of manpower availability.”

CATS sent another letter to RATP Dev in April regarding the “the inability for RATPDEV to manage and properly enforce chargeable absences.”

CATS sent the letter on April 12, a couple of weeks after WBTV sent an email to CATS following up on a public records request for data on missed trips and on-time performance that had not been fulfilled yet.

“The customer’s faith and trust utilizing the bus system as a transit mode is severely compromised and is considered unacceptable,” CATS bus operations General Manager Jennifer Fehribach wrote.

On July 14th, a WBTV Investigation revealed the scope of control that contractor RATP Dev had over CATS bus system. The new records show that on July 15th Fehribach sent a letter to RATP Dev notifying the contractor that liquidated damages were being assessed because RATP “has repeatedly failed to perform.”

The letter said CATS would deduct $21,200 from the next monthly payment to RATP Dev for “service failure” and averaging an on-time performance of less than 87 percent per month.

Records previously provided to WBTV show that CATS buses have missed the on-time performance goal of 87 percent 14 times out of the previous 17 fiscal year quarters, dating back to 2017.

WBTV’s sources say this is the first-time liquidated damages have been assessed against RATP Dev.

In an email to WBTV, a spokesperson for CATS wrote “these are not new actions that CATS started taking this year.”

“When performance issues are identified, CATS works with the contractor to seek an action plan, ultimately corrective action, for the performance failure. Liquidated damages (LDs) are assessed when mitigation attempts fail. LDs are not meant to be punitive or replace the corrective action stepped approach,” the CATS spokesperson wrote.

WBTV requested records and evidence of previous incidents of assessed damages and letters to RATP Dev about performance metrics, but no new records have been provided by publication of this article. A CATS spokesperson confirmed that liquidated damages had not been assessed prior to the July letter.

“What does it say to you that it wasn’t until WBTV shared your story that they actually started going for accountability?” WBTV Investigative Reporter David Hodges asked Brian Williams.

“They didn’t care because it didn’t hurt their pocket,” Williams said.

Williams said the bus reliability issues hurt his pocket, forcing him to take an Uber to work on multiple occasions all while he trying to save money to escape homelessness.

Williams told WBTV he’s currently living out of a car a friend let him borrow.

“What are you doing for the people?” Williams asked about CATS and Charlotte city leaders.

“Why are people struggling? Why can’t they get to work? But there’s so many jobs, well, how good is the job if you can’t get to it?” Williams said.

There's now going to be a new CEO of CATS and there's been a reorganization of how to approach this from a regional perspective.

A job, a bus, a plan under pressure

For years, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles has described her priorities as three pillars, connected together.

People need a well-paying job. People need an affordable place to live. People need a way to move between their job and their home.

In an interview with WBTV about the future of CATS and public transportation in the Queen City, Lyles said the infrastructure to move people across Charlotte is critical and the failures experienced by Williams and others is something she is focusing on fixing.

“It’s always disappointing when we don’t fulfill the needs of our residents and our customers,” Lyles told WBTV.

Lyles said the success of the light rail has been a bright spot for CATS but “buses have been challenging.”

On top of bringing in more employees and better trained bus operators and mechanics, Lyles said that Charlotte’s transportation infrastructure, including buses, must grow and keep pace with the volume of people moving to Charlotte.

The plan to accomplish that was originally branded the Transformational Mobility Network. Now, it’s a nameless goal, as setbacks, strategic mistakes and WBTV’s Investigations into CATS buses have forced a reset.

“I don’t think the name matters as much as getting it done,” Lyles said.

The plan was launched in December of 2020, after a task force created by Lyles and led by former Mayor Harvey Gantt announced their recommendations for the mobility network.

The network would require billions of dollars of funding in order to build new light rail, greenways, sidewalks and roads and buy more buses.

Lyles expressed regret about how the plan was approached from the very start.

“In hindsight, I think about that, and we probably should have made that plan not just about Charlotte Moves, but how the entire county moves,” Lyles said.

“So, we’ve stepped back, and we’ve made this happen.”

Lyles claimed that progress has been made since the reset, highlighting that every Mayor in Mecklenburg County unanimously agreed to refresh the Silver and Red Line as top transportation priorities.

“As long as we maintain an integrated and aligned plan with our county and our region, we’re still working in the right direction,” Lyles said.

That direction includes finding funding and Lyles said the plan to pass a one cent sales tax to raise billions of dollars is still the same. The tax would need to be approved by the state legislature, county commissioners and then voters in Mecklenburg County.

What it would cost to build the mobility network remains elusive. The original projection was $13.5 billion but a WBTV Investigation in 2021 revealed city staffers guesstimate the 20-year all-in cost could be closer to $20 billion.

As the plan evolved and priorities changed, city leaders didn’t include new cost projections. Regardless, CATS leadership will take the lead on several projects costing billions of dollars.

For months, city leaders quietly, and sometimes loudly in the case of Republican Councilman Tariq Bokhari, questioned whether CATS CEO John Lewis was the right person to lead CATS involvement in the mobility network moving forward.

In October, Lewis announced he was resigning his position at the city to take a job in the private sector. His last day is November 30th.

WBTV asked Lyles whether the city’s plans passing a sales tax and starting the mobility network would have been possible with Lewis still leading CATS.

“I don’t have to worry about that kind of idea,” Lyles said.

“He delivered one of the most important projects (the Blue Line) on-time and under budget. His fortitude in this job has been remarkable for me to see.”

“He’s made a decision to leave, and when he makes that decision, then I think it’s the right time (for a new CATS leader),” Lyles said.

Charlotte needs Washington

Time is now becoming a major factor in whether the city can achieve its mobility network goals.

In November 2021, Congress passed the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act. The law signed by President Joe Biden allocates $89.9 billion in funding for public transit. Billions of dollars is up for grabs for towns and cities across America planning their own bus and rail upgrades.

When describing what she wanted in a new CATS CEO the city is currently hiring for, Mayor Lyles said it’s critical that it’s someone who knows the connections the city needs to have to help get the federal infrastructure funding.

That federal funding could cover 35-50% of the project costs if the city can apply for a grant and get it approved in time. But to do that, the sales tax would need to be approved first to show there’s a local funding source for the project.

Deadlines are looming. The federal funding for Charlotte will only be available until 2024, according to Lyles.

“That does mean that there is a sense of urgency about it,” Lyles said.

Lyles also stressed the urgency comes from the growing traffic congestion.

“We want to do something about it in advance and that’s why I think it’s so urgent and important,” Lyles said.

Passengers need reliability

If the sales tax makes it past lawmakers in Raleigh, Mecklenburg County voters will get final say over whether they want to be taxed to pay for the mobility network.

Throughout 2022, Charlotte councilmembers have told WBTV they wouldn’t dare approaching voters with that question right now, as faith and trust in Charlotte’s buses is too eroded.

Lyles said she wants to lean into the experiences shared by riders like Brian Williams to gain their trust back.

“We begin to deal with those stories, and we begin to change those stories. We create additional trust, and we build back that faith,” Lyles said.

But in order to see major improvements, Lyles and other top city leaders have said voters will need to approve the sales tax and believe in the city to build a more robust public transit system

“Giving us the ability to take the time to get a funded system that actually is designed to work well for the rider and not just our essential riders, but everyone in the city,” Lyles said.

“I believe we can do it.”

Lyles will have to keep working to convince bus riders like Williams. He said his trust can’t be earned back at this point.

“My faith? No. I’ll just go buy a car now,” Williams said.