Have you ever seen “A Christmas Story”? You know, the movie where Ralphie begs his parents to get him a Red Ryder BB gun, but they refuse because “you’ll shoot your eye out!” Most of that movie was filmed in Cleveland, where Ron Tober grew up.
Born and raised alongside the tracks in Cleveland (first the Nickel Plate railroad and later the Cleveland Rapid), Tober has had a love for transit much like Ralphie had a love for that BB gun, which guided him towards the public transportation field.
“I just got fascinated with trains as I was a kid,” Tober says, “I went off to college and went to an Eastern liberal Ivy League school. And during the late ’60s was an engineer, but sort of got interested in doing stuff in cities and helping people and not worrying about profit.
“I used to wear a button that said People not Profit.
“All of that stuff. That interest in trains, the propensity to want to do something to help people in cities and being an engineer, all of those things sort of coalesced around moving in the direction of public transportation,” says Tober.
“I had read a book when I was in my senior year in college in engineering school in Cornell called The Urban Transportation Problem. A very, in those days, primitive discussion about what was going on in cities. So all that stuff is where it came together for me in a nutshell. The combinations of the fascination and fondness for trains as a kid, and trying to find my niche with the talents God had given me and the direction I got pointed in. And I’ve been in the business ever since.”
Tober began a career in transit after college and traveled around the country, like many executives, before landing back home in Cleveland, where he eventually became general manager and held that position for 12 years. But his transit career would take its next step, an unexpected one, a litte further south than he had planned. Tober would soon be recruited to start a transit system from the ground up in Charlotte, N.C.
“We had not planned to stay in Cleveland forever. Cleveland was my hometown obviously as I had said earlier. And right at the time that they recruited me to come down [to Charlotte] I wasn’t looking to leave at all,” Tober says.
“My youngest daughter was just starting as a junior in high school. And it wasn’t a great time to move her. We figured that maybe within two years we would move. But I got recruited to this job and got interested in it because it was an opportunity to build a brand new transit system in a fast-growing city, Charlotte.
“Dynamic economically, prosperous community where they were talking about tying land use and transit together. So building something from scratch and doing it right … in other words tying the development of the transit system together with land-use planning is what attracted me to this job,” he says.
Tober dismissed the recruiter initially and wouldn’t even look at the documents she sent him until after she called him a third time.
“I just said no, we’re not ready to move,” he admits.
Finally looking at the documents, he was hooked and made the decision to apply for the job, which he ended up getting.
“Thank goodness she persisted,” he laughs.
Starting CATS from Scratch
Tober left being the general manager of the Cleveland RTA and moved to Charlotte in November of 1999. There he found that he had no public transit department, just a section of the Charlotte Department of Transportation (DOT). Tober says his staff was about 20 to 25 people strong when they created the public transportation department and the CATS dba in the first few months he was there, but they’ve grown quite a bit since.
“So there were only 20 to 25 employees there, where now here at the city we’re approaching 375 people at CATS, which includes our paratransit operation, and the light rail operation as well as the larger administrative professional staff,” Tober says.