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July 2008
Purr-fect Choice
By Ellison Clary

     Ridership on the Lincoln County express bus to and from Charlotte has jumped 70 percent since 2007, and Keith Parker knows why. The chief executive of the Charlotte Area Transit System, or CATS, is listening to what people said they want in commuter bus service. And he’s giving it to them.

     Half a year into his job, Parker is presiding over huge hikes in ridership for all of CATS’ bus commuter lines. Those in the commuter portion of the 68,000 who ride buses daily are enjoying reconfigured interiors that feature storage racks for briefcases and laptop computers. They’re relaxing in reclining seats and using individual reading lights. They can turn on or shut off the air flow.

     Oh, and they like the courteous drivers who place a premium on staying on schedule.

     These commuters are what Parker calls “choice riders,” people who can drive to work if they want, but who opt to use CATS.

     “To get them to ride and stay as riders, we had to meet their needs,” Parker explains. “Even with these high gas prices, if someone tries us for a week and the drivers are rude and the buses are not on time and uncomfortable, they’ll just go ahead and pay the high gas prices.”

     He knows all this because he surveyed potential choice riders across the greater Charlotte region shortly after he signed on with CATS in 2000. Ron Tober, who was chief executive then, directed him to build service to that demographic.

     He also asked another group of riders, those who take the bus because they don’t have a dependable vehicle, what they want. He found they need routes that avoid center city and transport them directly from their homes to necessary stops such as grocery stores. That explains the growing popularity of shuttle lines.

     Parker is about to survey the community again, but that is getting ahead of the story.

     Parker took the CATS helm on December 22, 2007, replacing Tober, who retired and subsequently signed on to run Charlotte’s historic trolley. It was just after voters had crushed an attempt to repeal the half-cent sales tax that funds much of CATS’ operations.

     The day after the November ballots were counted, Parker remembers feeling relieved and proud. The 70 percent sales tax victory margin surprised him, Parker admits but is quick to outline what he believes are the reasons for it.

     “People recognized two things,” he says. First is the damage the demise of that important funding source would inflict on some of Charlotte’s most needy residents. It would take a long time, he says, to address the resulting woes for those who can’t afford a car and depend on CATS to get to work.

     “Secondly, to be blunt,” he says, “I think folks really started to negate the message they were receiving from the anti-tax crowd.” People began to see that rescinding the half-cent sales tax wouldn’t save them significant dollars, he adds, pointing out that a typical Charlotte family pays $40 a year to the transit tax.

 

Light Rail an Overwhelming Success

     With the fairly new LYNX Blue Line humming on its 9.6 mile route, serving 15 stations between center city and I-485 at South Boulevard, Parker is enjoying a drop in light rail criticism.

     Some still point to the light rail line’s cost, which ballooned to $452.7 million from an initial estimate of $230 million. Parker likens that escalation to price jumps for most big capital endeavors, including high profile road projects such as Interstate 485.

     “The price of steel and concrete, the price of labor, and just the competition with the world has dramatically increased the cost of major capital projects,” he points out.

The success of the light rail line is undeniable. LYNX ridership, projected to be 9,100 per day, is averaging 13,000. For special events, it’s more than double that.

     Speed Street, the center city celebration of racing that coincides with NASCAR’s All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, spurred a new record for LYNX riders, with 35,000 hopping on board the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.

     “It’s partly the experience,” Parker smiles, “it’s not just the transportation. We see people who drive out of their way to get on the LYNX line and make it a part of what they are doing. I thought that would take years.”

     Parker had been running a transit system in Vancouver, across the Oregon-Washington state line from Portland, when he came to Charlotte in 2000 to be CATS deputy director for operations. He switched to being an assistant city manager in 2004.

     Though he took that position with some hesitancy, he professes that he’s glad he did because it helped him see how others viewed CATS.

     To run CATS, he beat out candidates in a nationwide search; one that interviewers feared would be hampered by concern about the anti-sales tax campaign.

     “I told the search committee very early on,” Parker recalls, “that I wanted this job no matter what. Even more so if the funding was lost, because I’m quite experienced at that and felt that I would be suitable.”

     He points out that the Vancouver system he presided over lost its major funding source when a much-reviled tax on motor vehicles was repealed.

     “We found ourselves going from a cash-heavy system in great expansion mode to losing 42 percent of our funding overnight,” he says with a head shake. “I went from being the guy growing the system to the person who was making sure we had enough things in place to survive.”

     Fortunately, it was a task for which he was prepared. The native of Petersburg, Va., had learned the transit ropes in Richmond, a poorly funded system that did enjoy first-rate management. He used Richmond lessons to bolster the Vancouver system. After he left, voters granted it new funding.

 

Straddling the Tracks

     Now Parker has two titles. As director of public transit for the city of Charlotte, he answers to city manager Curt Walton. As chief executive of CATS, he answers to a board of directors currently led by Jennifer Roberts, chair of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.

     Roberts praises the open, responsive style and likes the way he shares credit. “He takes the time to thank his staff,” she says, “from the mechanics and drivers to the administrators and engineers. He recognizes the success of CATS is due to productive teamwork.”

     “Keith’s transition from assistant city manager to CEO of CATS has been a natural and seamless one for him and the organization,” Walton says. “He is committed to building one of the finest transit systems in the country with a focus on providing affordable and efficient choices in transportation.”

     Parker presides over a $140 million budget. Only 25 percent of it comes from fares which are $1.30 now and likely will rise to $1.50 in the fall.

     “I don’t for a second apologize that we use sales tax money to support the transit system,” says an adamant Parker. “I think it’s really money very, very well spent. And it’s spent on people who are driving our economy on a daily basis.”

     CATS has 377 City of Charlotte employees and another 850 who are contract workers, including bus drivers and mechanics. The system counts almost 500 vehicles, including 344 full-sized buses. There are 16 light rail cars. The system recently bought four more of these, but delivery will take two years.

     “One of the things that that was an unfortunate consequence of the sales tax repeal effort was that we delayed purchasing additional vehicles,” Parker says. “We are behind in our bus orders. We won’t actually see any new buses for six or seven months.

     Parker has watched fuel prices skyrocket from $3 million a year when he arrived in 2000 to the $12 million budgeted for next year. “We were spending 80-something cents for a gallon of diesel in 2000,” he says. “Next year we’re budgeting $3.50.”

     Bus ridership overall is up 28 percent in recent months, much of it coming from commuters, folks who want to save gas money and enjoy being dropped off at the front door of their building.

     Parker points out that in Portland, Ore., families have made a decision to have only one car and use public transportation.

     Charlotte needs to get where Portland is on that count, says Parker, who on most days takes an express bus between his Government Center office and a park-and-ride lot near his Huntersville home. “If we continue to be smart about our investments, and people continue to see us as a viable alternative, we can get there.”

 

More Opinion Checks On Way

     Feeling more at home in the office Tober once used, Parker’s ready to pose more questions to the public. “How’re we doing?” he intends to ask on surveys and in appearances at civic affairs.

     Big decisions loom. By spring 2009, preliminary studies will be far enough along to make a call on two more rail projects. One is an extension of the LYNX line through the UNC Charlotte campus and close to the Cabarrus County line—or possibly all the way to the speedway just a stone’s throw across it. The other is a commuter rail line from center city to Mooresville in southern Iredell County.

     “We’ll have to decide on recommendations to build one of them, build both or build neither,” he says. Though the expense would be enormous, he hopes there will be justification to at least build one and phase in the other.

     For the southeast corridor along Independence Boulevard to Matthews, no decision will be made on light rail or buses until 2011. “Whichever it is,” Parker says, “it will be high-speed service on a separated guideway; it will carry a lot of people quickly and be separated from regular traffic.”

     A route from center city to Charlotte-Douglas International Airport will get enhanced bus service in 2009, probably on vehicles with a distinctive color scheme and brand. Eventually, a streetcar line will replace it.

     Interest in a streetcar line from Beatties Ford Road through center city, past Presbyterian Hospital and out Central Avenue to Eastland Mall, is building and its 2018 start date may get speeded up significantly, Parker says.

     Meanwhile, the historic trolley is back in operation, chugging along at top speed of 25 miles per hour.

     “We’re a hot property,” Parker smiles. He recalls a recent survey that ranked Charlotte at the top of a livable city list. Reporting that on its Web site, MSNBC used a visual of a LYNX car. “That was the symbol of Charlotte,” he says.

     What’s next for Parker? At 41, he admittedly works longer hours than he’d like and he enjoys amusement park trips with his wife and two young daughters.

     He’ll stay at the CATS helm “as long as we’re doing good things and I’m making a solid contribution,” he says. But he adds, “It’s not a job I can retire from.” Citing significant stress, he reckons he’ll be around another five to seven years.

     After that, perhaps he’ll pursue his dream job: Teaching public policy at the university level.

 

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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