“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.”