CATS CEO sits down for interview after WBTV investigates bus issues

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) — After two WBTV investigations into Charlotte’s bus operations division, CATS CEO John Lewis sat down for an interview with investigative reporter David Hodges to answer questions questions about transparency, bus reliability and driver safety.

Lewis’ interview comes as attention intensifies on what CATS, the CEO and private entrepreneur who runs the day-to-day operations of the CATS bus division, is doing to improve ongoing issues.

Just three days after a WBTV investigation revealed a private contractor was running Charlotte’s bus system, Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones released a memo to council members announcing that an assessment of the “organizational structure and management team” of CATS was in progress.

The July 17 memo from Jones also repeatedly mentions the contractor for the WBTV investigation, RATP Dev, and indicates that it will be part of the review process.

Despite RATP’s massive role in running the city’s bus service, very little information about the company is publicly available on the city’s website. Even during the current bus reliability and safety crisis, there has been no mention of the contractor at public meetings, until WBTV began filing registration requests and asking questions. questions to CATS management.

During the interview, Lewis said RATP Dev handles day-to-day operations while CATS handles strategy. For RATP Dev, this includes the hiring of drivers, bus maintenance and management staff who oversee these daily operations.

“It’s not a new structure or situation,” Lewis told WBTV.

“What’s new is the day-to-day challenge they face,” Lewis said of the tight labor market and difficulty hiring and retaining drivers.

“This was new information for a lot of board members and TSAC (Transit Service Advisory Committee) members, however, they had never heard of the name RATP Dev,” a WBTV reporter told Lewis.

“That’s a question they have to answer,” Lewis said.

WBTV scoured more city records and found an employee of RATP Dev, the deputy general manager of the CATS bus division, last addressed a public committee meeting in January 2020. The employee from RATP Dev was previously introduced as someone from “bus operations” and there was no mention of his current employer.

Board members request a full briefing to get more information from the contractor or Lewis on what is being done to improve bus reliability.

A previous WBTV survey showed that Charlotte City buses have failed to show up thousands of times already this year. Riders and transit aficionados have started calling them “ghost buses” because the CATS app doesn’t warn drivers that the bus isn’t coming.

During the interview, Lewis said they found an update for the app so that drivers are notified of missed trips in the future.

“You’ll see ‘cancelled’ and a line through this next scheduled service,” Lewis said.

In the meantime, CATS tweeted the number of driver absences to inform passengers that there might be delays or missed rides.

Another WBTV investigation found that driver absences tweeted by CATS included generally planned reasons, such as worker compensation, FMLA and even military service. This contradicts Lewis’ previous statements that the numbers were “unapologetic” and “sick” calls.

“The only people who care about categories of absences or bureaucrats and reporters,” Lewis said in the interview.

Lewis said absentee tweets were the best way to let bus riders know there might be delays on their route. WBTV asked if the tweets would be halted now that the app was showing canceled routes, but it didn’t provide a direct answer.

“We are working with our advisory committee (TSAC) on transparency as a goal,” Lewis said. “We will come back and see if this information continues to be relevant and useful.”

Lewis also questioned the reasons for the number of operator absences, noting that the SMART union is in negotiations with RATP Dev for a new collective agreement.

“We didn’t have these extreme unplanned absence issues until this year. Coincidence that they are in contract negotiations? So is this a cumulative effect of the pandemic, or is this planned industrial action? Lewis said.

Lewis said they would not see the impact of the investments in drivers’ wages until after the ABC negotiations. Lewis said RATP Dev had traded its best and final offer with the union. If that breaks down, it could go to mediation.

Two drivers were shot that year and one, Ethan Rivera, later died from his injuries.

“Why should drivers believe in CATS and you that they are protected?” a WBTV reporter asked Lewis.

Lewis paid tribute to the two drivers before saying calling the bus system “unsafe” is a misnomer.

“The characterization that this bus system is dangerous because of two anomalies, I think, is a bad characterization,” Lewis said.

“We are increasing our security services as a result of our conversations with our operators.”

Lewis said riders should trust the system will bounce back. CATS offers to cut dozens of low traffic routes to increase reliability. Driver shortages and absences led to missed trips and Lewis said there were still 74 unhired positions in the budget.

“I hope you will stick with us as we go through this difficult time,” Lewis said of the runners.

“I think we have a plan in place that will get us back to the level of reliability that our customers have grown accustomed to so far.”

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Lance B. Holton