CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) – For years, a private company hired by the City of Charlotte has controlled nearly all of the city’s bus service aspects. But virtually none of the city’s elected leaders knew that.
WBTV began investigating the bus system after months of problems plagued CATS operations: two shootings, dozens of daily driver absences, buses that don’t show up on schedule and other trips that are never made at all.
The lack of clarity among city leaders on who was controlling the bus system’s operations changed after WBTV started asking questions for this story in June.
On Monday, CATS CEO John Lewis briefed a city council committee about the operational structure of the agency’s bus operations – including the private contractor – after spending weeks refusing to answer questions on camera.
Councilmembers, for the first time, were asking questions about the contractor’s role running the city’s bus system.
“Does RATP Dev manage the bus operations division?” Councilman Larken Egleston asked.
Lewis answered with one word.
City’s contract with private company flies under the radar
The current contract between CATS and the contractor, RATP Dev, was approved by city council in February 2019.
RATP Dev operates a subsidiary called Transit Management of Charlotte, which oversees a slew of CATS operations, including routes, scheduling, fare analysis, employee selection and training, labor relations, safety and security, among other things.
Despite RATP’s massive role in running the city’s bus service, there is very little information about the company publicly available.
An analysis of past city council meetings by WBTV shows the company is rarely, if ever, mentioned during public meetings. WBTV could not find any instance in which an RATP employee was invited to publicly address city leaders.
Document: City of Charlotte and RATP Dev Contract
The last time the company was mentioned at a full city council meeting was in March 2019 when then-Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield asked about it.
Mayfield is running to regain a seat on the city council this year.
“That’s very concerning as a resident and as a taxpayer,” Mayfield told WBTV about the lack of transparency surrounding CATS and RATP. “Yet we have not heard from them during this crisis”
During a recent council Transportation and Planning Committee meeting, Councilman Egleston asked if council could hear from RATP leaders in the near future. Lewis pushed back.
“I understand the committee’s interest in hearing directly from them,” he said. “Once the collective bargaining process is complete, I think that would be an option.”
“We should absolutely be hearing from them but, I would ask, why haven’t we heard from them before?” Kyle Luebke, who is also running for Charlotte city council, told WBTV.
Luebke works as a lawyer and frequently rides the bus. We showed both him and Mayfield a copy of the contract we obtained between CATS and RATP Dev.
Contract approved with little oversight, renewed without debate
During his Monday briefing with councilmembers, CATS CEO Lewis said CATS would be putting the bus operations contract out for bid next year when the current contracts expire.
But Lewis neglected to mention the current contract already completed the initial term this year and RATP is still operating as the bus operations division manager.
The contract effective date was February 11, 2019 and the initial term of the contract was three years but also gave the city the option to extend the contract for one additional year up to two times.
Driver Ethan Rivera was driving a CATS’ bus on February 11, 2022, when he was shot and later died from his injuries. The shooting happened on the third anniversary of the RATP contract start date and the beginning of its fourth year.
WBTV could not find information on the city or RATP website definitively stating the contract was renewed and CATS has not agreed to an interview to answer questions about the contract.
Nonetheless, RATP is still a contractor for CATS and the city.
“If somebody is failing at doing something and failing at providing a service that we’re paying them to do, they should be providing that service and should not just get an automatic extension because we haven’t done our due diligence,” Luebke said .
Mayfield, who was on the council when the contract was approved, said the automatic renewal clauses present a problem for how council’s election schedule currently works.
“One of the other challenges of being on a two-year term is a lot of these things happen in between terms. They all happen right at the end of one term. New people are elected, and they don’t have the background,” Mayfield said.
The RATP contract approval was on the council’s consent agenda, meaning it wasn’t discussed publicly and was voted through with dozens of other council action items.
City takes little action as contractor continually misses performance metrics
The contract obtained by WBTV makes clear RATP Dev is responsible for the city’s buses operating on time. If the company fails to meet certain performance metrics outlined in the contract, it has to pay the city damages.
One performance standard for “service failure” indicates RATP could face $5,000 in damages for each calendar day the company is not able to provide 75% of the scheduled service hours.
Another section requires a $1,000 penalty per month if on-time performance drops below 80% and $200 per month if it falls below 87%. Data provided to WBTV by CATS in April showed the OTP has been below 87% since the 4th quarter of FY2021.
During the council committee meeting Monday, Lewis made a broad reference to the performance metrics saying there were financial disincentives for the contractor not providing “the necessary manpower” and the city is “implementing those contractual mechanisms.” He did not clarify which performance standards he was referencing.
But CATS has publicized the amount of driver absences daily on its twitter page.
“They are trying to save themselves and give cover for their inept failure at providing the necessary service to our community,” Luebke said.
“When it comes to the court of public opinion, I’m concerned that our drivers are going to lose that because individuals are losing their jobs because they can’t get to work,” Mayfield said.
“I’m concerned that our director of CATS is not being forthcoming.”
Lewis also told council that CATS and RATP are working on a contingency plan to alter bus schedules and minimize wait times and missed routes for riders. Charlotte’s Transit Service Advisory Committee is meeting Thursday afternoon to discuss changes Lewis called minor.
But the contract raises questions about whether a contingency plan should already have been completed by RATP.
One section in the contract states RATP should “respond accordingly with a contingency plan” in the event of service disruptions that prevent a driver from making scheduled pick-ups.
Data from CATS shows that buses were missing three percent of their trips between January 1 and March 31 and employee absences have averaged 23 per day since May 1.
Audit raises other concerns
In addition to operational challenges, which Lewis focused on in his Monday presentation to council members, WBTV has also uncovered an audit raising questions about CATS procurement practices and its oversight of RATP Dev.
An internal audit from 2021 found “CATS has not consistently followed established city policies for the procurement of goods and services.”
The audit largely focuses on CATS’ internal issues but makes several mentions of RATP and its subsidiary Transit Management of Charlotte.
The 2019 contract between RATP and the city addresses what responsibilities in procurement fall to RATP stating that “The Company (RATP Dev) shall make recommendations as to type, quantity and amount of materials, supplies and equipment to be purchased.”
According to the contract, those purchases “may be made by the Company (RATP Dev) after consultation with CATS Procurement and Contract Management Section and in accordance with the then current Citywide Procurement Policy.”
The CATS Procurement audit found the contractor has “not incorporated the changes directed by the department head” in the two-year transition period to city-wide procurement policies.
“Price changes initiated by [Transit Management of Charlotte] staff without properly executed contract amendments have led to payment disputes with vendors and payment delays. For one major vendor, CATS had to agree to pay prices as invoiced (which often disagreed with the contract price) with the ability to reconcile later,” the auditor wrote.
Overall, the auditor cited RATP and CATS for their “resistance to complying with city-wide procurement policies, and lack of monitoring of actions taken by BOD contractor RATP Dev which are not coordinated with the City and continues to result in policy violations and increase risks to operations.”
In a record request filed on May 24th, WBTV requested a list of the violations mentioned in the audit. CATS and the City of Charlotte have not produced those records.
In response to the audit, RATP submitted a proposal to “assume all aspects of the operational procurement process for the bus operations division.” Both CATS and City Procurement agreed.
Political opponents agree change is needed at CATS
Given all the concerns about transparency, Luebke and Mayfield – two candidates running for the same seat, from opposite political parts – agree that RATP Dev needs to address city leadership publicly.
But more importantly, they said council and City Manager Marcus Jones need to hold CATS and RATP Dev accountable.
“The fact that our elected leadership is not holding this third party, that they hired, accountable or that John Lewis at CATS is not holding this third party that he hired accountable…that is what we need change for,” Luebke said.
“I’m not going to put all the blame on City Council for not knowing, but after this you no longer have any excuse,” Mayfield said.
WBTV requested interviews with CATS CEO John Lewis and RATP Dev for comment on this story. RATP did not respond. A public information officer for CATS said that Lewis would not be available for an interview for this story by the time of publication.
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