New CATS chief faces funding questions

Charlotte’s new top transit official, John M. Lewis Jr., will oversee the construction of the Lynx Blue Line extension and possibly the second phase of an east-west streetcar line.

But his biggest task may be securing money to build the other pieces of the city’s 2030 transit plan, which are unfunded and stand little chance of being built without new money.

Those projects include a commuter train to Lake Norman, more miles of streetcar, and possibly some form of rail transit to Matthews along the Independence Boulevard corridor.

Lewis, who was introduced Monday at a news conference, is coming to Charlotte from the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority, centered in Orlando.

That transit authority covers three counties. Mayor Dan Clodfelter said Lewis’s experience managing a tri-county transit system is an asset, and such a model could be used in Charlotte moving forward.

Clodfelter said Charlotte could promise outlying counties better transit service in exchange for creating a multi-county transit authority and new tax dollars from those areas.

“There’s no more (large transit projects) under the old way of doing it,” Clodfelter said about funding the transit plan solely from a Mecklenburg County half-cent sales tax for transit.

He said creating a larger transit governing body is “very much on the table.”

Clodfelter said CATS could bring rail service to Cabarrus County or Gaston County if those counties helped pay for it.

Lewis was the chief executive of the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority, or Lynx, since December 2010.

Lewis was asked Monday whether he thought Charlotte could benefit from creating a larger authority and bringing in more local governments and tax dollars.

He said he wouldn’t be able to comment on the specifics of Charlotte’s situation, but he said “anytime you can provide regional options, that’s a good model.”

Third chief executive since 2009

Lewis, who will make $228,698, will be the third CATS chief executive in seven years.

Keith Parker followed Ron Tober in 2008, but he left for a transit job in San Antonio in 2009. Carolyn Flowers took over the job in early 2010 and then left for a position with the Federal Transit Administration earlier this year.

After Monday’s news conference, Lewis flew to Orlando to present his proposed budget for the authority Tuesday. He will miss a ceremony Tuesday morning to open the first phase of a streetcar line outside Time Warner Cable Arena.

He will likely start in Charlotte in mid-August.

He described his management style Wednesday as bringing in good people and letting them do their jobs.

“I am not a micro-manager,” he said.

Lewis previously worked at the Greater Richmond Transit Company, the Maryland Transit Administration and the Maryland Department of Transportation.

The Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority is similar in size to CATS.

The Orlando-based system has 300 buses, the same number as CATS. It carried 30 million passenger trips, while CATS carried 27 million trips in 2012.

Lewis said another difference is that the Orlando system is much larger geographically, covering Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. Some of the bus lines, he said, start in the city and end near cow pastures.

The main difference is that CATS has rail transit, unlike the Orlando system.

Construction projects

Lewis will oversee two large construction projects.

The first streetcar line opening Tuesday is only 1.5 miles long, but the city has budgeted enough money to build another 2.5 miles of streetcar. That would cost $150 million and could open by 2019.

CATS is also building nine miles of new light-rail track to University City. That $1.1 billion project is scheduled to be finished in 2017.

After that, CATS has no money to build anything else.

Lewis said CATS has a vision for transit services and has shown it can “deliver on the promise.”

“Then you have an air of credibility,” he said. “(You can then ask) What other services can you bring to the region?”

CATS has garnered good will for the successful light-rail line, which opened in 2007.

But when voters that year turned back an effort to repeal the half-cent sales tax, CATS said it could build multiple rail lines with the money generated from that tax.

Now, CATS has limited options. It could seek a new sales tax inside Mecklenburg County that would be in addition to the half-cent transit sales tax that was first levied in 1998.

Or it could seek more money from outlying areas.

CATS has discussed building a streetcar or light-rail on or along Monroe Road towards Matthews, a streetcar or rail line to the airport and a commuter train to Lake Norman.

The city will need hundreds of millions of dollars to launch any one of the projects.

Harrison: 704-358-5160

Streetcar line opening

The city of Charlotte will hold an opening ceremony Tuesday at 10 a.m. for the first phase of the streetcar line. The event outside Time Warner Cable Arena will be attended by former mayor and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. The streetcar will open for passenger rides at 1 p.m.