“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.