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March 2004
On the Right Track
By Ellison Clary

     Ron Tober found his dream job when Charlotte offered him a blank slate.

     Charlotte’s public transit program promised more than his usual task of engineering change in an existing system, so Tober moved from Cleveland in November 1999 to lead it.

     “This was an opportunity to build a transit system from scratch,” he says with shining eyes in his office on the ninth-floor of the city-county government building.

     During his 35-year transportation career, he explains, he’s worked in a variety of locations and situations, some good and some not. “I spent a lot of time trying to change the culture of organizations,” he says. “I dealt with infrastructure problems sometimes almost intractable in their nature.” 

     Tober gazes at his window’s skyline view. In the foreground loom the Charlotte Transportation Center and rail lines that promise to support both light rail passenger service and Charlotte’s historic trolley.

     “I wanted to build something (in Charlotte) that was tied closely to the city’s land use strategy,” Tober continues. “The city was committed to try to change the way it was
growing and (leaders) saw public transportation not as an end in itself but as a means to the end of changing the development pattern.”

     “So this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Tober smiles.

     Luring Tober was a coup for Charlotte, says Dennis Rash, former senior vice president for Corporate Real Estate at Bank of America and currently visiting professor of Transportation Policy Studies at UNC Charlotte. While Rash was a member of the N.C. Department of Transporta-tion board, he spent three days with Tober as he ran the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA).

     “I was impressed with (Tober’s) demeanor, I was impressed with the way he negotiated, I was particularly impressed with his capacity to execute,” says Rash. “And I think he has an attribute that not all transportation professionals have. He really appreciates the importance of the land use issues along the corridors.”

     Tober’s fascination with rail started early as he was growing up on Cleveland’s west side and often rode a train downtown. At 56, he still enjoys electric train sets in his south Charlotte home and toy locomotives decorate his office.

     At Cornell University and later while earning a master’s at Case Western Reserve University, he developed a strong interest in urban problems and saw that public transportation was instrumental in their solutions. He spent 12 years as general manager of GCRTA. Before that, he had been transit director for Seattle. He had also held transit posts in Miami and the Boston area.

 

Long-Range Transit Plan A Big Influence

     In the Queen City, Tober created the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) from about two dozen workers in the Charlotte Department of Transporta-tion. CATS had 2003 operating revenue of $92 million and about 140 employees. Ridership for the fleet’s 400 vehicles has grown to about 15.5 million a year.

     Tober figures the transit system has doubled its size since 1998, when Mecklenburg County voters approved a half-cent sales tax to fund public transportation improvements outlined in the 2025 Integrated Transit/Land Use Plan for Charlotte-Mecklenburg. 

     That plan’s existence heavily influenced his decision to move to Charlotte, he says. A pleasant surprise, he adds, was neighborhood support for public transportation. “We have folks clamoring for it and we can’t get it to them fast enough to make them happy.”

     Tober has thrown himself into building the elements of the 2025 transit plan that includes light rail, commuter rail, streetcars, bus rapid transit and traditional bus service. It outlines five major transportation corridors between center city and the suburbs that will get either rail, busways, streetcar or a mixture. 

     This year, crews will begin building a light rail line between uptown Charlotte and Interstate-485 near Pineville. Called the South Corridor, that 10-mile stretch will feature 15 stations, half with parking lots to accommodate commuters’ vehicles. Residential and retail developments are envisioned nearby. Tober and wife Theresa think they might live near the line when it is complete in 2006. 

     With projected daily ridership of 17,900, the line’s cost is pegged at $371 million. The half-cent sales tax will pay a fourth, as will the state of North Carolina. President Bush’s 2005 draft budget includes $30 million for the project, bringing the total federal amount pledged to about one-third of its total funding of $185 million.

     Reacting to the President’s budget, Tober says the Federal Transit Administration has assured CATS that if the project continues moving forward, “there is nothing to preclude us from receiving a Full Funding Grant Agreement in fiscal year 2005 when we have completed the required steps in the FTA’s project development process.”

     Tober can get that done, says Tim Newman, president of Charlotte Center City Partners. Besides technical know-how, Newman says, Tober has the necessary political relationships.

     Newman praises Tober’s performance at a December Transit Summit sponsored by the Charlotte Chamber. After the session, Federal Transporta-tion Administra-tion chief Jennifer Dorn called Charlotte’s plan for the South Corridor one of the nation’s best. She said she was impressed with $400 million in private development along the South Corridor tracks, years before daily service begins.

 

Charlotte Can Become Example For The Nation

     That corridor development is a major part of the 2025 plan that Tober is excited about implementing.

     “Frankly, if we’re successful with it – and I’m going to do everything in my power to make us successful – 15 years from now people will look at Charlotte as a prime example of how urban areas should grow,” Tober says.

     The object of Charlotte’s transportation corridors and planned development along them, Tober says, is to reduce the growth rate for traffic and pollution. Ever-improving engine technology can curb pollution, he explains, if personal vehicle miles cease their rapid rise. Given an attractive choice, he believes commuters will opt for public transportation and may even decide to live  near the lines.

     That effort impresses Peter Pappas, chairman of the Charlotte Chamber, who praises Tober for seeing how public transportation and growth planning go hand-in-hand. Pappas, who is president and managing partner of Pappas Properties, also credits Tober with having the business sense to build the CATS revenue stream.

     Short-term, Tober is trying to make riding CATS buses more socially acceptable. Sometime back, he banished buses draped in advertisements, including one for lunch meat.

     “It was a baloney bus,” Tober remembers. “It just looked awful. We were getting a very small amount of revenue from that and (eliminating ads) was well worth it in terms of changing the appearance of the transit system.”

     Tober is also working on dependability and ease of use, adding service during rush hours, installing bus stop signs that include route numbers and erecting bus shelters and benches. The fleet is becoming more diverse. “We’re buying new and different types of equipment, small buses, big buses, different types of buses tailored to different types of markets,” he says.

     The Charlotte Transportation Center near The Square is another impressive amenity, Tober points out. It serves 32,000 people a day, but it’s nearly a decade old and he says CATS has outgrown it.

     “We’re getting ready to build a second downtown transportation center,” he says. “That’ll be done on West Trade Street where the Greyhound station is, in partnership with the state.”

     That “multi-modal center” will service inner city buses and trains. It will be the terminus for commuter rail service for northern Mecklenburg communities and Mooresville. Modern streetcars will connect the West Trade station with the Transportation Center on East Trade.

 

Trolley Headaches And Concerns About Critics

     While discussing streetcars, Tober acknowledges headaches in returning the historic Charlotte trolley to service with a refurbished vintage vehicle and replicas. CATS wasn’t scheduled to assume trolley operations until 2006, but Tober says operating and financial concerns suggested CATS should step in sooner. In doing so, CATS inherited design bugs in the Charlotte Conven-tion Center and construction blunders in the Westin Charlotte hotel, both of which must accommodate trolley tracks. With the postponements these have forced, Tober now anticipates trolley runs between East Ninth Street and South End by spring.

     Developer Tony Pressley gives Tober high marks, but criticizes trolley delays. A founder of the Historic South End Development Association, Pressley wishes the trolley had been brought along faster, even if on a piecemeal basis.

     “I don’t think (Tober) and others have understood how important (trolley service) is to the economic health of that South End district,” says Pressley, president and chief executive of MECA Real Estate Services, LLC. “There have been a lot of people who have invested a lot of money,” he says, citing the retail and residential development along the tracks.

     Gerald Johnson, publisher of The Charlotte Post with offices next to the tracks, says the trolley’s progress is as rapid as can be expected, given its hurdles.

     Johnson, whose newspaper calls itself “The Voice of the Black Community,” says he hears from people who criticize the transit service planned for their corridor as inappropriate. “It will all get cleared up in the future,” he says, “but right now it’s probably a big mess.”

     Tober acknowledges that some people want rail instead of bus service. “There are different types of voices and it’s a fairly diverse community,” he says.

     Louder critics call Charlotte’s transportation plan an enormously expensive boondoggle that will never attract riders in large numbers. They claim it will divert money from more essential road building.

     To counter that, Tober and his staff have held more than 300 public meetings in the last four years. “By and large,” Tober says, “the majority of people are pretty supportive of what we’re trying to do.”

     They should be, he adds. “We go through a tremendous gauntlet of requirements in terms of ridership estimates, risk analyses, costs and environmental hurdles that really are not presented to highway projects,” he says. “And when a transit project comes through that process, it’s in good shape, probably much better shape than most of the roadway projects.”
     Still, Tober realizes CATS is an easy target for critics on talk radio and in the weekly press. “They’re catering to a lack of tolerance. They’re going to grind away on us.”

     What can he do about it? “Make what those folks are saying about public transportation be false,” he says. “We have to deliver better than what we’ve promised.”

     Tober is smart to be sensitive, Newman says. “I’ve suggested to Ron that he be more proactive. I agree that, over the long term, performance will speak for itself,” Newman adds, “and I don’t think that any of the decision-makers are affected by these critics because they know the facts.”

     Pressley thinks Tober should do more than hold public hearings. “It’s one thing when you go to a neighborhood meeting and 20 people show up,” he says. “It’s something else when you walk in front of a Rotary club with 200 business leaders.”

     Still, Pressley says, “I like (Tober’s) style. I trust him because he’s straightforward. I feel strongly he’s the right person at the right time to get the job done.”

     The entire 2025 plan will cost almost $2.9 billion over three decades, with the half-cent sales tax raising $2.7 billion. With federal and state help, $600 million of sales tax revenue will go to construction, Tober says. The rest will finance operations.

     Determination rings in Tober’s voice as he talks of making the Charlotte project much more than his last transit job. “We’re going to build this community a world class transit system. We’ll show the rest of the country that we did it right,” he says.

“Then I’ll be able to retire and say that I managed to accomplish something very significant in my life.”  

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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