CATS CEO sits down for an interview after WBTV Investigations into bus problems

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 about transparency, bus reliability and driver safety.

Lewis’ interview comes as focus intensifies on what CATS, the CEO and the private contractor managing day-to-day operations of CATS bus division, is doing to improve the ongoing problems.

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 councilmembers announcing an evaluation of CATS “organizational structure and leadership team” was underway.

The July 17 memo from Jones also mentions the contractor from the WBTV Investigation, RATP Dev, several times and says they will be part of the review process.

Despite RATP’s massive role in running the city’s bus service, there is very little information about the company publicly available on the city’s website. Even during the current bus reliability and safety crisis, there were no mentions of the contractor during public meetings, until WBTV started filing records requests and asking questions of CATS leadership.

During the interview Lewis said that RATP Dev manages day-to-day operations while CATS handles strategy. For RATP Dev, that includes hiring drivers, maintenance of buses and a supervisory staff that oversees those day-to-day operations.

“This is not a new structure or situation,” Lewis told WBTV.

“What is new is the challenge that they’re having in meeting day-to-day,” Lewis said regarding the tight retaining labor market and difficulty hiring and hiring drivers.

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

“That’s a question for them to answer,” Lewis said.

WBTV went through more city records and found one RATP Dev employee, the assistant general manager of CATS bus division, last adressed a public commitee meeting in January of 2020. The RATP Dev employee was previously introduced as someone from “bus operations” and there was No mention of his actual employer.

Councilmembers are calling for a full briefing to get more information from the contractor or from Lewis about what’s being done to improve bus reliability.

A previous WBTV Investigation showed 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 alert drivers the bus isn’t coming.

During the interview Lewis said they have figured out an update for the app so drivers will be notified of missed trips moving forward.

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

In the interim, CATS was tweeting the amount of driver absences as a way to notify riders that there could be delays or missed trips.

Another WBTV Investigation found that driver absences tweeted by CATS included reasons that are typically planned, such as workers comp, FMLA and even military duty. That’s in contradiction to Lewis’ previous statements saying that the numbers were “unexcused” and “sick” callouts.

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

Lewis said the tweets on absences were the best way to notify bus riders there could be delays on their route. WBTV asked if the tweets would be discontinued now that the app showed canceled routes but he didn’t provide a direct answer.

“We are working with our advisory committee (TSAC) on transparency as our goal,” Lewis said. “We’ll check back and see then is this continuing to be relevant and helpful information.”

Lewis also cast doubt on the reasons for the amount of operator absences, noting the SMART Union is in negotiations with RATP Dev for a new collective bargaining agreement.

“We didn’t have these issues of extreme unplanned absences until this year. Coincidence that they’re in contract negotiations? So is this a cumulative effect of the pandemic, or is this a set labor action?” Lewis said.

Lewis said they won’t see the impact of investments in driver salaries until the CBA negotiations end. Lewis said RATP Dev exchanged best and final offer with the union. If that breaks down it could go to mediation.

Two drivers have been shot at this year and one, Ethan Rivera, later died from his injuries.

“Why should the drivers have faith in CATS and you that they’re protected?” a WBTV reporter asked Lewis.

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

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

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

Lewis said riders should have faith the system will rebound. CATS is proposing cutting dozens of routes with lower ridership in order to increase reliability. Driver shortages and absences have led to missed trips and Lewis said there are still 74 unhired positions budgeted for.

“I hope you will stick with us as we work through this trying time,” Lewis said about riders.

“I think we have a plan in place that will bring us back to the level of reliability that our customers have grown used to up until now.”

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