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CATS gives updates on Red Line plan, safety concerns and pricing

Charlotte Observer
Mecklenburg County commissioners heard a familiar refrain on transportation Tuesday: There are plenty of plans under consideration to improve the region’s transit system, but there aren’t clear answers on how to pay for the upgrades.

Brent Cagle, the interim CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System, addressed a number of topics and fielded questions from commissioners at their Tuesday meeting, including long-stalled plans for a new commuter rail line and other ways to modernize CATS.

The agency’s focus in the last year has been on “safety and security,” said Cagle, who took over CATS as it grappled with headlines about a train derailment and incidents of violence on buses.

Moving forward, he said, CATS will look to find ways to execute an extensive slate of ideas.

Here’s what Cagle told commissioners about the Red Line project, safety concerns among riders and whether to cost to ride buses and light rail could increase:

Update on Red Line, other CATS projects

CATS continues to negotiate with Norfolk Southern to gain crucial track access to connect northern Mecklenburg towns with Charlotte’s central business district, Cagle said.

The proposed 25-mile LYNX Red Line would connect uptown Charlotte to Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville via commuter rail. CATS’ plan for the system would utilize the “O Line” — a set of rarely used freight tracks owned by Norfolk Southern.

But for years, Norfolk Southern held its ground on not giving CATS access to the tracks, repeatedly saying “Freight operations are long distance and customer-driven, which precludes ‘passenger only’ operating windows.”

In October, local leaders expressed cautious optimism that the rail company could be softening its position. Cagle offered a similar assessment Tuesday.

“I’m happy to say that we continue to have conversations with Norfolk Southern regarding our use of this line … While they have been receptive to conversations with us, those conversations are ongoing,” he said.

Another hurdle to the project is how to pay for it, Cagle added.

“All of it predicated on additional funding being available for these projects,” he said.

Commissioner Elaine Powell, whose District 1 includes many of the communities that would be served by the Red Line, said she’s hoping for unity among local leaders as transit plans move forward. Leaders of some Mecklenburg towns expressed concern and frustration with how much control the City of Charlotte had over CATS in 2023.

“I want my mayors to be unanimous on decisions going forward, and I support them,” she said.

CATS has other projects ongoing too, Cagle said. That includes coming up with designs for the proposed Silver Line, a 30 station light rail line that would run from Belmont through Center City Charlotte and into Union County.

The transit authority is also hoping to soon make progress on rezoning permits for the new Charlotte Transit Center and look more into microtransit, which could provide on-demand transit in parts of the county that are difficult to serve with buses and light rail, Cagle said.

How CATS is addressing safety concerns

CATS continues to address maintenance issues with its light rail fleet, Cagle told commissioners Tuesday.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation ordered CATS to get maintenance up-to-date in the wake of a 2022 derailment, and additional cars were taken out of service in January when another possible issue was detected.

Cagle said CATS is working with rail company Siemens Mobility to expedite that work.

Getting the full fleet back online will give CATS more flexibility when crafting routes and accommodating large events that increase the number of riders, he noted.

“As we complete the maintenance and more vehicles come into service, we’ll have more capacity,” he said.

Asked by Vice Chair Mark Jerrell about perceived or actual public safety threats for CATS riders, Cagle said the agency is trying to take a nuanced approach. There have been multiple violent incidents involving CATS buses in recent years.

Cagle said CATS has entered into contracts with two new security providers in the last year. CATS is also launching initiatives to help people dealing with mental health concerns or who are experiencing homelessness access wraparound services and put “ambassadors” on buses so riders can get questions answered without bothering drivers.

“We understand that not every situation that arises requires a law enforcement or security response,” he said.

Will CATS increase fare prices?

As CATS tries to figure out how to fund everything it wants to do and grapples with ridership levels that have yet to rebound to pre-pandemic levels, Cagle acknowledged it’s possible the cost to ride the agency’s buses and light rails could change.

CATS’ current fares are “not the highest we’ve seen out there, but they’re certainly not the lowest,” he said.

The transit authority also wants to review pricing in the next year to make buying a ticket or pass simpler for riders, Cagle added.

It’s important for the agency to keep equity in mind when setting its prices, Cagle said. The vast majority of CATS riders use the system because they have to, not because they choose to, he said. More than 60% of CATS riders earn less than $60,000 per year, and in that group more than 40% earn less than $30,000 per year, according to Tuesday’s presentation. Many of those riders don’t have a car and need reliable public transit to access jobs, school, health care and more.

“What we’re really going to do is look at the fares to simplify them to create a better customer experience, and to make sure that we’ve taken into account equity for those folks who need to ride to use the system,” he said.

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