Transit meeting dives into CATS culture of silence

More troubling news about safety was presented to members of the Metropolitan Transit Commission.
The interim CEO of CATS said Wednesday night that he’s working to undo a culture of silence.
Published: Mar. 22, 2023 at 10:17 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Members of the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) sounded off on their lack of confidence and the lack of accountability in the Charlotte Area Transit System Wednesday night, questioning whether riders can trust the organization with their safety.

The interim CEO of CATS said he’s working to undo a culture of silence after a light rail car derailment was kept secret from the public for nearly a year. He said more surprises are in store, including the failure to conduct bridge and parking lot inspections.

This is not a surprise if you’ve been watching reporting from the WBTV Investigates Team. Issues regarding safety, security, maintenance and repairs have been at the center of WBTV reports on CATS for more than a year.

Previous Coverage: Charlotte’s broken buses: CATS mechanic says “I wouldn’t put my family on one of the buses.”

The trust level was so low among members of the MTC voted to bring on a third party to investigate the derailment, the delayed maintenance and the safety issues. The feeling of the board is that the faith they had in former CEO John Lewis was misplaced and opinions were split on moving forward or looking back to hold people accountable.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner and MTC member Leigh Altman said the dire warnings from the North Carolina Department of Transportation about the Blue Line leave her wondering if it’s okay for people to ride it.

“I won’t feel comfortable these trains are safe until I hear it from (NC)DOT,” Mecklenburg County Commissioner and MTC member Leigh Altman said.

Previous Coverage: Charlotte’s light rail cars are aging. New report urges fast safety action

The scale of problems inherited by CATS Interim-CEO Brent Cagle is only growing.

“Where do I need to hold people accountable vs where are the people who were afraid to speak up,” Cagle told members during the Wednesday meeting.

Cagle told MTC members that on top of the secret derailment from last May, light rail bridges and parking decks also didn’t receive necessary inspections. He said the city has already hired a contractor to inspect the bridges over the next two to three months and bring CATS back into compliance.

It might just be the tip of the iceberg.

“We should expect that there will be other things found,” Cagle said.

Mayors from across Mecklenburg County and other members of the MTC expressed their shock and disappointment at the lack of transparency from former CATS leadership. The CEO and CFO resigned in late 2022. COO Allen Smith was placed on unpaid administrative leave earlier this month.

Previous Coverage: Charlotte’s second-ranking transit official placed on leave without pay

“Deferred maintenance and preventive maintenance is just an outright failure when you have the budget to do it and you don’t do it, there’s a problem,” Davidson Mayor and MTC member Rusty Knox said.

Cagle described the steps cats is taking to get the light rail cars overdue maintenance and says the trains are safe. Oversight from the North Carolina Department of Transportation has forced CATS to take eight trains out of service and limit speeds to 35 mph.

With the wide scale acceptance of MTC members in a lack of trust, WBTV asked Mayor Vi Lyles what’s next for CATS and the city’s transit plans, including a one cent sales tax to pay for the Silver Line and other major projects.

“I absolutely have that concern, you heard everyone in this room openly express the concern with public trust. And so, if we have to work on that first that’s what we have to do,” Lyles said.

The inquisition into CATS is going to continue as Commissioner Altman called for a third party to come in and investigate the derailment, the safety issues, the lack of maintenance that was approved by commission members unanimously.

It’s not yet clear if Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones will take that step unilaterally or if Charlotte City Council will vote on it.

All of WBTV’s reporting on CATS over the past year can be read here.

Previous Coverage: Charlotte Mayor: CATS ‘shortcomings’ were unknown to City Council