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Doing the bureaucratic shuffle

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Most of you don't sit through long, boring meetings like I do, and usually by the time you get the media-sanitized version of what's going on around here, you're pretty much left in the dark.

After three mass transit "presentations" in two weeks, though, one thing is becoming increasingly apparent: the folks at the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) don't have a freaking clue what they're doing.

The presentations went like this. CATS chief Ron Tober and his cronies show up with spiffy architectural drawings and high-tech moving graphics, the cost of which I don't even want to fathom. A mere slide show isn't enough for these people, no, they've got to have streetcars that actually roll across the screen.

Naturally, the council was wowed. That is, until they started asking basic questions; then the foot shuffling began. How much would the streetcar, which is supposed to run on Trade Street and Central Avenue, actually cost? Uh, no one knows. CATS would have to do some engineering studies. When will CATS build it? No one really knows that either, but probably sometime in the next decade, or maybe not. Will we actually end up building it at all, then? Tober wasn't too sure about that either.

Then for the love of God, I want to yell, why are these idiots wasting our time and money on this stupid graphics show?

At this point, either City Manager Pam Syfert or Mayor Pat McCrory usually jumps in and cuts off the shuffling bureaucrats before the situation spins out of control.

"I think most people assume that we have committed to all the other routes, but we are doing the engineering studies right now," McCrory says of the mass transit plan as a whole. "The big decisions will be made on all the routes once we get the engineering studies complete."

Translation: They don't have a clue what the other lines will cost either, or what, if anything, they plan to build on them. That is, if there's enough money left to build anything at all. So, that was a useless presentation.

The presentation on the multi-modal station that's supposed to be built where the Norfolk Southern tracks cross Trade Street didn't go much better. Oh sure, the graphics looked great, but not much was actually learned about the station itself, despite council members' best efforts.

The streetcar system CATS might — or might not — build, at a cost of God knows how much, is supposed to eventually run through the station, along with trains, rail and some other stuff we don't know the cost of, and might — or might not — actually build, either. No, CATS has no idea what the station itself might cost, or who might join them in paying for it, but they plan to finish it by 2008, which, if CATS' other presentations last week are to be believed, would be years before they know which transit modes they'll actually be using the station for.

The state will probably chip in to pay for some of it, council was told, but CATS doesn't know how much. So will Norfolk/Southern. Maybe.

"It benefits greatly the Norfolk/Southern Railroad so their participation in the program will be very significant," said David Carol, a CATS Senior Project Manager, before contradicting himself moments later by saying that a large part of the project would hopefully be funded by Norfolk/Southern.

The whole thing might cost $150 million. Or not.

"Please don't embed that $150 million number in your minds," said Tober. "It is a very preliminary number, strictly a planning number, and has not been the subject of any engineering work."

Don't worry, Ron, we won't.

A week later, Tober was in front of the council again to explain why the cost of the South Boulevard light rail line is going up again, this time from $398 million to $427 million. The actual purpose of that presentation seemed to be to convince the public that the line is only over budget by a mere $28 million, and it is — since this spring. Over and over again, the same four words were repeated by a variety of revisionist bureaucrats: "over budget" ..."$28 million" ... "over budget" ... "$28 million."

The goal, of course, was for you to forget that in August 2001, the 11-mile line was supposed to cost $331 million. After Pineville opted out, over two miles of the line was cut from the project, which they said would lower the line's price by $30 million. A year later, the cost had risen to $371 million.

This is somewhat alarming, since the bulk of cost overruns for light rail lines typically occur during the construction phase and we haven't even broken ground yet.

Anyway, Tober had some additional bad, and as usual, totally unforeseen news. CATS might not have enough money left to renovate the trolley barn, so the $700,000 CATS spent designing the thing would probably go down the tube.

This pronouncement was delivered in the same monotone drone Tober used the week before to explain why he had no idea what it would cost to bring the graphics he flashed at council to life.

Do these people not see a connection here?

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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