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Q and A with Ron Tober

by Jennifer Garner

November 5,2006

You’ve been under a lot of heat. Is the criticism justified?

It is not unusual for big projects to go over budget and run behind schedule. Try looking at a highway project and find one of those that was on time and under budget. So I understand the frustration and anger over the light rail project. I don’t know why, but I think public transit projects receive more scrutiny than other public works projects. There are those who think we should be building roads and those who see public transportation as a welfare program, not a service to the entire public. I have seen these same issues and growing pains in other cities; established cities like Cleveland and newer cities like Seattle had the same issues getting rail transit lines built.

How would you grade your leadership on light rail to date?

I think we have had a lot of obstacles hit us along the way in this project. We have had issues with designers not providing quality work and plans for the project which has cost us money we shouldn’t have had to spend. We were faced with increased costs for steel and cement, a shortage of local labor and a 90 day delay due to problems with Norfolk Southern Railroad and the construction around their tracks. If I had it to do over, I would take a different approach to the contracts. We thought that we would save money by doing smaller contracts and getting more competition, but now I would group together contracts in bigger packages. We kept our own staff lean, and trusted the design firm for their expertise, which we frankly did not get. It may have been better to have more staff to provide oversight of those designs.

Are the dollars being spent on the South Line worth the money? At what point would it not be worth the money?

I do think this project is well worth the money. Light rail is not the means to the end but is part of a long term growth management strategy for Charlotte. What we are doing now will improve the lives of Charlotte citizens 50 years from now. We are encouraging different land use patterns and encouraging people to get out of their cars and think of public transit in a new way. There has already been a growth in residential and commercial development along the South Line and it isn’t even done yet. Once people see the project done and how easy and convenient it is to ride, they will change their perceptions of public transportation. We have already seen a change with the increased gas prices; our bus ridership is up 62 % since 1998. It is worth the money to decrease air pollution, improve access to downtown activity centers and reduce our need for uptown parking.

What message about light rail would you like to get out?

That it works. It works in cities like Denver, Dallas, San Diego and Portland. New systems have just come on line in Houston and Minneapolis and are already exceeding their ridership projections. These are cities with sprawl and lots of people and those cities have light rail that works. People will be amazed at the impact even one line will have. We will see results right away and people will be asking, “When will it come to my neighborhood?” Now we aren’t trying to get everyone out of their cars, but we will get a portion that is interested in improving their community and making their commute easier. When all five lines are up and running, our goal is to have 40% of the uptown market riding and 25% of the other corridors’ markets on rapid transit. The lines to Davidson and Huntersville will impact a huge number of uptown commuters eager to get out of traffic on I-77.

If ridership on the South Line is low, will the other lines be built?

When the South Line is open on November 26, 2007, we don’t believe there will not be an issue of low ridership. It will be a race over which line gets built next. There is objective data and analysis that will figure into this decision and there are some politics as to which line is next on the plans.

What is the status of the multi-modal station?

This project is still in the plans to be built in the next 5 years, but it is an $80-100 million project requiring federal, state, local and private funds. We have $19 million in federal funds earmarked for this joint project between the Department of Transportation and CATS. The station will encompass Amtrak lines, light rail, buses and the streetcar line on Trade. It will be like Penn Station in New York; you can come into the city on a train and then access any part of town via another mode of transportation right there. The location on West Trade by Gateway makes it ideal for this.

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