Nearly six years ago, when Ron Tober retired as Charlottes chief transit executive, he said vicious and mean-spirited verbal attacks had taken a toll.
Since then, Tobers signature project the Lynx Blue Line opened and carries thousands more passengers than expected. It became a model for transit projects across the nation. It is no longer a punch line locally for government waste.
Tober mostly vanished from local public life.
But the former Charlotte Area Transit System executive has now returned, in a small way. He is a member of a 30-person task force Mayor Anthony Foxx convened to brainstorm new ways to pay for transit.
After CATS builds the 9.3-mile light-rail extension to University City, the rest of the areas ambitious transit plan which is mostly Tobers creation is essentially dead.
There is no money to build rapid transit along Independence Boulevard. Nor is there money for commuter rail to Lake Norman. There also isnt money for a streetcar that Tober championed, though the city of Charlotte is attempting to build that itself. The City Council and Mayor Anthony Foxx is divided on whether to pay for the streetcar with property taxes.
City officials also have said CATS barely has enough money to build the $1.1 billion Lynx extension to University City.
In an interview, Tober said he believes that if the economy hadnt cratered in 2008, CATS would have enough money from the half-cent sales tax for transit to complete his plan. That is debatable given the fact that both Charlotte light-rail projects have cost far more than first projected. Other transit projects, if built, might cost more as well.
The city said it needs between $2.4 billion and $3.9 billion for operating and capital expenses to finish the system.
Feeling left out
Since he stepped down from CATS in December 2007, Tober has held a variety of jobs.
He spent two years helping run Seattles transit system. As a consultant, he spent a total of nine months in Honolulu as the city worked to build a heavy rail line. He has been a consultant in Indianapolis and Raleigh.
Tober said he is working as a consultant for Parsons Brinkerhoff in Honolulu, updating its business plan.
The last two years of his time at CATS were marked by controversy over the escalating costs of the Lynx Blue Line, which more than doubled in price to $462.7 million. In the summer of 2007, he watched as anti-transit advocates tried unsuccessfully to repeal the half-cent sales tax for transit, and often made Tober the target of their attacks.
He recalls that time as a most vitriolic environment, but Tober said he never considered moving. He still owns his house in Cotswold.
He said while hes moved on from that period, he does harbor some resentment that his successor, Keith Parker, received much of the praise during the Blue Lines first full year of operation in 2008.
It was hard afterward when Keith was being ballyhooed as being the Man Who Made Light Rail Work, Tober said. His role was minimal.
Parker left CATS in 2009 to take the top transit job in San Antonio. He now heads Atlantas transit system.
The Lynx Blue Line was projected to average 9,100 weekday trips when it opened. It carries about 15,000 passenger trips today.
I was 100 percent confident, Tober said. But I used to have to hold (then Mayor Pat McCrorys) hand I dont want to say he had cold feet but he would always ask me, Is anyone going to ride this?
Foxxs transit task force is supposed to offer recommendations next month. The groups suggestions could become part of future transit policy or it could be ignored, like so many other taskforce recommendations over the years.
Tober said he believes the sales tax must be broadened to include the purchase of cars as well as services that today are exempt. He said hes encouraged by a Republican proposal in the General Assembly to reduce or eliminate personal income taxes and corporate taxes while expanding the sales tax.
He also said he thinks other counties should be brought into CATS, perhaps through a regional transit authority. That would allow CATS to expand service and raise more money.
I ran into him over the years, and hes always had ideas and has shared them, said Charlotte City Council member David Howard, who co-chairs the task force. This is as much Rons legacy as anyones. He was the original architect, if you will, and he wants to keep it going.
The group includes politicians such as state Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Democrat, and state Rep. Charlie Jeter, a Republican; Natalie English of the Charlotte Chamber; business officials such as Ned Curran of the Bissell Companies and developer Peter Pappas; and former public officials such as former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, former City Council member Lynn Wheeler and former county Manager Jerry Fox.
There isnt going to be the silver bullet like we had in 1997 when we got the half-cent sales tax, English said. There isnt going to be a one funding source, or one model that will work. I think there will be multiple solutions.
Avoiding streetcar disaster
The most controversial transit project is also part of the groups agenda: a streetcar through central Charlotte.
Tober added the streetcar to the regions long-term transit plan and still believes it will be useful today.
The city has started construction on a 1.5-mile starter streetcar line from Time Warner Cable Arena to Presbyterian Hospital. That $37 million line was funded in part by a $25 million federal grant.
But an effort to extend that starter line 2.5 miles farther has been in limbo since June. Tober said he believes its imperative to extend the streetcar past Time Warner Cable Arena. A 1.5-mile line wouldnt be long enough to attract riders, he said. Opening a streetcar that isnt large enough to attract a critical mass of riders would be public relations setback, he said.
It would be a disaster, Tober said.
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