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.
“We have a contract operation here that runs the bus system. All of the employees in the bus operation were Memphis Plan City. Where all the employees here are employees of a private company, managed now by McDonald Transit formerly by First Transit.
“The employee population at the bus operating division has grown from probably about 500 to 800 some, which it is now.
“We have grown from less than 600 people to around 1,100 people in the transit operation. [CATS started with] 165 buses. We now have 324 full-size buses and a larger number of 30-footers and vanpools out there,” Tober says.
Of course for your staff and fleet to increase, ridership has to go up as well. For the burgeoning CATS, there has been a steady increase since the first day it opened its doors to the public.
“In 1998, the year before we got started here, the ridership was about 11 million passengers,” Tober says.
“We’re just under 20 million now. So we’ve had about a 67 percent increase in ridership, a pretty substantial growth, and we’re building our first light rail line.
“The city manager and several of the elected officials have told me they never thought we would build rail as quickly as we are down here. So we were able to get that off the ground. Not without some controversy,” he admits.
Ron Tober isn’t one to mince words, especially when it comes to his system. Despite what his critics might think, he knows the score when it comes to CATS’ new light rail line.
“It’s had problems, OK,” admits Tober.
“In part because of when we were bidding. The time we were bidding our major construction contracts was just after steel and cement prices started their steep increase, so we got hit with that.
“That was in 2004. And then in 2005 we opened the bids on our station finishes contract a couple weeks after Hurricane Katrina and we got killed on bids on that.
“We’ve had trouble with Norfolk Southern railroad because we’re building right next to their mainline. They were not particularly cooperative with us until I got some help from our senator and our congressman making phone calls on our behalf to get them to be more cooperative.
“And then we’ve had some design issues. The designer we had originally hired for the project didn’t do a very good job for us.
“When we got started with this project in 2000, this was our first project. We were just getting started with the transit system and not in the position to hire a big staff. We could hire a small staff to begin to work with, but we would rely upon consultants to provide us with the resources and expertise to be able to carry out the engineering work on the project. So we relied a lot upon our design firm at that point in time,” Tober says.
Tober wouldn’t go into specifics, sufficing to say that the designer let them down with the plans presented. This caused delays burning contingencies on the project and cost CATS a lot of money.
But despite the problems and growing pains along the way, CATS has had its successes with the new light rail line, especially with its vehicles.
“On the other hand, on the equipment side of things, we’ve got 16 Siemens S70 low-floor cars that are the third generation of them,” Tober says with a smile.
“Houston had the first generation. San Diego has the second generation. Ours are really the third generation of them and they are very good vehicles. I mean they have a lot of miles on them down there right now.
“The Siemens cars came in under bid. We had 10 constructions packages. Six of them came in under bid. But the four that were over were major civil construction contracts of one sort or another. That’s what’s hurt us on this budget,” he admits.
And that budget wouldn’t have relied a lot on the full-funding grant agreement CATS received from the FTA, which in itself was another difficult process altogether.
A New Start for a New City
The Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts process is a difficult one for most agencies. With limited dollars to be had, the competition is steep — which made it even more difficult for a new agency like CATS.
“Getting through the FTA process and getting a full-funding grant agreement (FFGA) in a new city that had not had one before was daunting,” Tober says. “I mean to go all the way through that process added about a year and a half on to our development process. If it had been faster, we would have been open.
“It’s a rough process these days — the tightening up of the evaluation criteria, the focus on cost-effectiveness.
“I think we were the first project that then Administrator Jenna Dorn nailed us with a FFGA number that was at the end of preliminary engineering. And we were only at a 30 percent design level at that point in time. And that’s what they started holding us to, our FFGA number, because that’s what they had sent up to the Hill most recently.
“Now that’s the policy at the end of PE, but everybody is trying to get up to 50 or 60 percent design level. We were only at 30. I objected to that strenuously and so did our Republican mayor, but we were told take what you can get. So we were new and as a new city and so we took what we could get and we got. So that was a problem.
Tober also points to the risk assessments process as one of the things that slowed down the project. As one of the first properties to go through the process, they were operating in the virtual unknown and it ended up costing them time and money.
“The risk assessments has the potential to be a good tool, but frankly it gave us a false sense of security on some things right at the time when steel and cement prices were going up and we got the wind taken out of us when we got those first bids in. I’m not sure that doing four risk assessments, which is what we’ve gone through, is justified, you know in terms of cost and expense, that it provided that kind of value,” Tober says.
Tober admits that one of the problems they faced is the project manager oversight program, which he feels has somewhat lost its way.
“The program, instead of, from our perspective, and I’ve talked to several of my peers around the country, I’m probably going to regret these words but… From my perspective what used to be an advisory process for the local grantee, the project sponsor and from the FTA has become more and more where the project management oversight consultants (PMOCs) are trying to direct work, tell us what to do rather than saying you might want to consider doing this,” Tober says.
“The amount of time and staff effort that gets invested in dealing with the PMOCs is substantial. And one of the things that has happened to us here is we started the project with one firm, [then] it got changed in the middle to another firm. So we had set some things up in the project management plans with the first PMOC’s advice and started to move down those roads and you get another set of people that come in and say well we don’t think that’s the way you ought to do it, so you need to change it like this.
“And the FTA staff said go ahead and change it. So we changed that. And then about a year later the initial staff that that PMOC brought in on the project left and a whole ‘nother group came in. They hired new people and they had different ideas.
“Now we’re well into the finishing off and bidding and construction process. So now we get different views on what our quality assurance program should be, how we should be approaching certain issues,” Tober says.
Tober says that the mercurial process cost them and their construction managers time and money — a lot of money.
“Here again, you know it’s one thing to be advisory and for them to be looking out to make sure that the FTA and the taxpayers’ interests are being looked at,” Tober says.
“That’s fine, but this constant request of risk assessments, reports, changing requirements, not consistent application of program guidelines. Really, it’s cost us a lot of grief here.”
Making a Change
The new light rail line CATS plans to have in operation in November has been planned from the ground up to improve the entire area it rolls through. According to Tober it has changed everything in the area from the development pattern to the tax base and the demographics.
“The whole area down there in the south corridor was formerly an industrial area — a lot of textiles mills once upon a time. Then those had gone by the wayside and the area was in decline and deteriorating. There were businesses engaged in marginal activities in the corridor along the way,” Tober says.
“Now the corridor is thriving. There’s new investment going in. Old buildings being modernized and reused. New buildings being built. Brownfield sites being reclaimed. Transit-oriented development going on in several of the stations and more being planned.”
Tober says the property tax base has increased from generating about $250,000 for the city in 1998 to now generating nearly $7 million for the city with another $12 million for the county, which in 1998 earned around $500,000. With the property tax revenues seeing such a substantial increase, Tober estimates that with state and federal funding included, the light rail project will be paying for itself in nine or 10 years, and as he says it, “the next 40 or 50 years are gravy.”
A Little Different
Ron Tober explained to me that CATS is a little different than most other public transit agencies. For one, they aren’t just a public entity operating within a city, they are actually part of the city government itself.
“We’re in a kind of a unique setup here,” Tober explains. “I’m a city employee.”
“We’re part of the city. We have a policy board that provides oversight and policy direction in the transit system that consists of elected officials from all the local governments, including the county and the towns, but the city is where the transit system here is housed administratively, which from a positive standpoint has helped us in the land-use front tremendously.
“We have a transportation cabinet and the planning director, myself as a transit person, the director of the Charlotte Department of Transportation, who does roads and traffic and the city’s engineering director, we all sit on this cabinet together. And so infrastructure, sidewalk, streets, traffic planning, land-use planning, all this stuff gets done together.”
Tober explains that CATS was built from the ground up with land use and transit-oriented development in mind.
“Our big thing is land use, the city’s adopted land-use policies … the city and the surrounding towns have all adopted very transit-supportive land-use policies, zoning ordinances, as well as planning guidelines and design guidelines. And that’s a big deal. I mean that’s why we’re getting the start of a lot of the development that’s occurring along that corridor,” Tober says.
“We’ve seen — I’ve got some numbers now. [The] tax increase values that are going on there — I mean they are astronomical!”
Tober says the plan for CATS is to add four other corridors and a streetcar line by 2030, but that the south corridor line was planned even before he got there.
“There were a couple of reasons for that,” Tober says. “Interstate 77 South going towards South Carolina is the heaviest traveled corridor in the area. There was an existing railroad right of way that was available there, most of it was abandoned by the Norfolk Southern Railway, and there was potential for redevelopment to occur of significant potential. The die was pretty well cast.”
When he arrived, the city department that would one day be CATS was starting to do major investment studies on the four other corridors, but he was troubled by the fact that the heaviest traveled bus corridors, including the system’s most used corridor, which accounted for almost 18 percent of ridership, weren’t a part of any of those.
To alleviate this problem, Tober says they looked to Portland for inspiration.
“We added a streetcar project using the Portland approach, using modern streetcar operation and the Portland construction approach to replace our two heaviest bus routes for efficiencies sake, higher capacity rather than continuing to run buses every two or three minutes, 40-foot buses, and for economic development potential along those roads.”
With the plan updated and the first corridor already underway with preliminary engineering, CATS heard those words every agency wants to hear — what’s next!
“One of the things we were hearing from people is when are we going to see the next corridor selected, which corridor is going to be next, where are the stations going to be located,” Tober says.
“The city planning staff who was developing stationary and plans for the South Corridor said that we need to know more about where the stations are going to be, what the alignments are going to be, finally, so that we can put into place the transit-oriented zoning districts in the area. [So that] zoning decisions and land-use decisions that get made out there can be consistent, will be transit supportive.”
Tober says CATS went to the FTA in 2003 and asked to do something few had tried before, move all four other corridors through the study process at the same time.
“We did four simultaneous, what we call conceptual engineering and environmental studies and actually took us up to about 15, and maybe in one case 20, percent design level in those corridors. And last fall made final what we consider the final alignment and station location decisions and pretty much the final technology decisions with the exception of one corridor,” Tober says.
“And now the city planning staff from the land-use perspective knows where all the stations are going to be. The property owners will know where the stations are.”
The next question according to Tober now that where has been answered is when. The corridors are planned out in a sequence with some being done in as early as the next five years, while others will take 15. The corridors will be a mix of transit modes, including BRT, light rail, commuter rail and the streetcar lines (there are three of them in the plan), which are the farthest out.
With the light rail line nearing completion, recent news reports from the Charlotte area have sprouted up with complaints about the cost-overruns and a desire to do away with the sales tax that provides a large portion of CATS’ funding. The anti-CATS crowd has even gathered enough signatures to get a referendum on November’s ballot to repeal the tax. So with all this negative publicity swirling around the agency, how supportive has the public been of CATS? More than you hear about explains Tober.
“Well, some, and I think the vast majority of the public here has been very supportive of [the light rail line]. When we had the public hearing last fall, and the MTC, the transit commission, was making the final decisions, we had I don’t know, 60 some people come and testify. And they were all arguing about which corridor is going to be next or we want light rail instead of buses. So there is a lot of support out there,” Tober says.
“There is a small, very vocal group of people. And I mean small, there is maybe a dozen of them, who are anti-rail and maybe even anti-transit, who come from a particular political ideology and are actively engaged in trying to derail our plans.
“And they use their budget problems a year ago to sort of hype the fact that light rail was a boondoggle and so forth and managed to get on the ballot enough signatures to get the possible repeal of the sales tax on the ballot this November. We don’t think it is going to get repealed, but it’s being taken seriously.”
As with any transit agency, approval ratings wax and wane over time. Tober says that as far as CATS is concerned, they are still where they were at the beginning.
“When the sales tax was approved back in 1998, the vote was 58 to 42 the first time they went to the ballot, unlike Phoenix and other places that have taken three or four times to get sales tax approved. It got approved the first time here,” he says.
“The most recent poll done by the chamber was solidly behind us. [The poll’s results were] 57 percent to retain the tax, 40 percent to repeal the tax and the remaining 3 percent undecided. There was a margin of error of 4 percent on that. So we’re about where we were at nine years ago when the sales tax was approved.”
Kansas City ATA’s general manager, Mark Huffer, (April 2007) said the potential loss of sales tax revenue to a recent light rail ballot initiative could cripple his system. Would it mean the same thing to CATS?
“It means that we lose about $75 million in revenue that will be coming to us from it in the next year,” Tober says, “and that either the city and the towns have to replace that revenue somehow, or we’re going to cut the hell out of the transit system and there won’t be any more rapid transit lines of any kind.”
As with other cities, Tober feels the resistance is a push back against the idea of transit, not the project itself.
“I’ve said this locally and I will say it again. I think that the people who are organizing this anti-campaign know that once this first line gets opened and operating that the same thing is going to happen here that has happened in Salt Lake City, Denver and Dallas. And that is that people are going to want to know even more so [when can I have mine].”
How does a CEO handle the commotion from implementing his system’s first rail line in an unfriendly or even hostile climate?
“Sometimes well. Sometimes not so well,” Tober says with a sigh.
“You know, just try to communicate with people. We have various documents about why light rail, why now. What are the most frequently asked questions about public transit that go right at the 2 percent argument, that transit doesn’t really relieve traffic congestion, and that every light rail system has been a failure, that their ridership estimates are over and their cost estimates are under and so forth. We try to go right at that stuff and respond to it.”
I asked Tober if he had any advice for other transit officials and he summed it up in one word — communication.
Within the first five years of its creation, Tober says they were feeling pretty good about their level of communication with the public after hundreds of public meetings, the creation of an extensive mailing list and just the general public support they had received at their meetings, but he admits that it wasn’t enough.
“We had a great base of support out there, but still we’re not doing enough communication with people on what were the basic reasons we were doing what we were doing,” Tober says.
“And I think probably the other thing that I would caution is that we probably tried too hard, too long to keep our major New Starts project within budget. It probably would have been better for us after we opened up the bids the month after Hurricane Katrina to say we’re not going to be able to keep it within budget because of this bid that we’ve gotten here.
“But we tried for another nine months to keep it in budget, but it was impossible to do. We missed an opportunity in hindsight that that would have been the time when we should have just said this is it, a 90 percent over budget low bid after the hurricane, trying to get it down it was going to wipe out contingency all over the place.
“We missed an opportunity.”
Shortly after I interviewed Ron Tober and began this article, he announced his retirement from CATS effective this December. It was somehow prescient then that we discussed whether or not he was glad he made the trip to Charlotte and helped start CATS. Tober says he’s glad he made the leap and opened that file from the recruiter, but it’s been tough in the last year with the unrest and people taking shots at him.
“Trying to keep [my wife] and my daughters who are down here happy and not feeling like they have to write nasty letters or stand up in the back of a city council and say, ‘Listen you idiot!’ which she’s threatened to do a couple of times,” Tober admits with a smile.
“I’ve been in the business long enough, my skin is thick enough that I can handle a lot of things. It’s been a long time. I’m getting tired. I’ve been doing this for a long long time, but you know we’re doing something that is going to change this city forever and have a big impact on it.
“What I hope is that 10 to 15 years from now people will talk about Charlotte the way a lot of people talk about Portland today as being a great place to live, progressive, urban policies and so forth.”