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Council Quickies: CATS Blue Line Derailment Raises Questions

Notes from Monday's meeting: March 13, 2023

The new Charlotte City Council stands behind the dais.
The current Charlotte City Council is sworn in. From left: New rep Marjorie Molina, incumbent Renee Johnson, incumbent Dimple Ajmera, returning rep James ‘Smuggie’ Mitchell, incumbent Braxton Winston, returning rep LaWana Mayfield, Mayor Vi Lyles, new rep Dante Anderson, incumbent Malcolm Graham, incumbent Tariq Bokhari, incumbent Victoria Watlington, and incumbent Ed Driggs. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Charlotte City Council had a packed agenda at its March 13 business meeting, and things almost went off the rails early on as news of a 10-month-old Blue Line derailment broke during interim CATS CEO Brent Cagle’s presentation to council. However, we pushed through and the meeting clocked in at just under four hours. Rather than watch the whole thing, you can keep scrolling for the details.

ON THE AGENDA:

  • SAFE Charlotte: Alternatives to Violence
  • CATS Update
  • Social Districts
  • Polk Park Redevelopment
  • Social Districts and Other Business Items

SAFE Charlotte: Alternatives to Violence

Federico Rios led a presentation on SAFE Charlotte’s Alternatives to Violence program, which we wrote about back in October 2022.  Rios reviewed data from the program’s first year on Beatties Ford Road.

Last fall, the city accepted $2 million in funding appropriated by U.S. Rep. Alma Adams’ office to extend the program into the West Boulevard/Remount Road and Nations Ford/East Arrowood Road corridors.

The ATV team on Beatties Ford logged 4,629 hours during its first year in operation, engaging 883 individuals, completing 26 violence interruption mediations and seeing 65 goals achieved by at-risk individuals (usually related to education).

Mayor Vi Lyles, violence interruption Charlotte
Mayor Vi Lyles announces that the city will launch an Alternatives to Violence program using the Cure Violence model in 2021. (Photo by David Flower)

Rios said there were significantly less homicides using firearms along the corridor compared to similar neighborhoods over the past year. Rios said they found no significant change in other crimes they measured (aggravated assault with and without a gun, non-fatal gunshot injuries, violent crimes) but emphasized that the Cure Violence, the model upon which ATV is based, does not recommend over-analyzing first-year results.

Rios explained that only neighborhoods seeing certain types of violence qualify for the Cure Violence model. Much of the crime along Beatties Ford Road is relational, which Cure Violence has seen success in counteracting, while crime along the Sugar Creek corridor is transactional, which needs a different approach.

The city has already received eight letters of intent from individuals/organizations interested in working with the teams that will expand the program on West Boulevard and Nations Ford Road. Rios and his team are being purposeful in trying to create a team of grassroots folks familiar with those neighborhoods, he said.


CATS Update

Interim CATS CEO Brent Cagle led a presentation that described a recent review of the organization’s troubles and what improvements they will pursue following his first 100 days in the role.

Cagle claimed CATS has stabilized its bus and rail operations, stating that “missed trips” were less than 1% — or .01%, more specifically — in January, down from 8-9% last summer.

Approximately 30% of the city’s buses have surpassed their FTA-approved life expectancy for usefulness.

Cagle told council that one of the city’s light rail cars derailed in May 2022. The cause was found to be a bearing that is present on the entire fleet of 42 cars. Cagle claimed that he had been kept in the dark about the derailment by CATS staff until last month

Brent Cagle announced Monday that a Blue Line car derailed in May 2022. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Council’s April 10 agenda will include new/amended contracts with Siemens to enhance and expedite the replacement of those bearings. In the meantime, CATS is using tech that spots any issues with bearings before catastrophic failure, is increasing inspections of the bearings, and has lowered max speed to 35 mph on the Blue Line.

Once the floor was opened up for questions, Renee Johnson said it’s concerning to her that nobody on council knew about the Blue Line derailment until the presentation on Monday night, nearly 10 months after the incident occurred on May 21, 2022.

The FY2024 budget will include an additional $3.5M for security contracts that will not only increase security patrols on buses and rail but also go toward training operators in “de-escalation techniques and community service.”

Cagle said the bearings that caused the derailment last year did have a defect but are at the end of their useful life, meaning any potential warranty is void and the city is on the hook for all costs related to fixing the issue.

Cagle said the city is looking into entering an agreement with a private towing company that can quickly tow a vehicle off the Gold Line tracks if parked there. Currently, CATS security would respond to the scene and issue a $25 ticket, then call a tow company and if the truck gets there before the driver of the parked car, only then will the car be towed.


Polk Park Redevelopment

Council discussed resuming the process of redeveloping Polk Park at Trade & Tryon streets. The current space has a fountain that no longer works and has been attracting large rats, said Braxton Winston.

Winston explained that council had already gone through one plan to redevelop the space as a “legacy project” tied in with the Republican National Convention. But when the RNC could no longer host a full convention in Charlotte, they scrapped the plans for Independence Square, a $650,000 project.  

Enter the Hugh McColl Park Coalition, a group of business and civic leaders that is currently working to raise $10 million to revamp the public space in a private-public partnership with Charlotte Center City Partners.

The coalition’s proposal to build High McColl Park calls for demolition of the current park and installation of temporary turf to activate the park while design and fundraising are underway. The city’s contribution to the project would be the demolition of the park at an estimated cost of $350,000.

LaWana Mayfield took issue with the $350,000 price tag for the city, which she said could be used for other needs. She also doesn’t like the idea to name it after Hugh McColl, stating that she has an issue with naming anything after someone who is still alive.

“I need at least some kind of plaque or memorial to the native people who were the beginning of trade and commerce at Trade and Tryon,” Mayfield added.

Polk Park was built in 1991 and has become obsolete with limited gathering space, poor lighting, outdated landscaping, and a hard-to-maintain fountain. (Photo courtesy of City of Charlotte)

Ed Driggs said he thinks $350,000 is a great value for revitalization of an important but “forgotten little corner” of Center City. “What do you get for that much these days?” He also supported honoring Hugh McColl in this way despite being from the opposite side of the political aisle.

Before the vote, Mayor Vi Lyles recalled Hugh McColl’s efforts to save her alma mater, Queens University, when it was at risk of being shut down and redeveloped into more Myers Park housing. Council then voted. The motion passed and the project will move forward. Mayfield casted the only No vote.


Social Districts and Other Business Items

David Merrill was the only one to address council about plans to place a referendum on the ballot to amend the city’s charter, increasing council terms, staggering council elections, and adding another council district. He said the council was ignoring any recommendations they didn’t like from an earlier ad hoc committee that sought resident feedback.

Marjorie Molina said she would be a No on the referendum, stating that she would be able to support a change to four-year terms if council would transition their elections to even-numbered years. She said current odd-year elections get too low of turnout to justify four years of service.

Debbie Smith with Charlotte Department of Transportation led a short presentation updating council on social districts.

Smith confirmed that the only two pre-applications submitted for the right to become social districts, which would allow for off-premise alcohol consumption within the boundaries of said district, have been from the Plaza Midwood Merchants Assoc. and Gilde Brewery in Lower South End.

Tariq Bokhari acknowledged that social districts have been tougher to get opened up in Charlotte, as smaller towns have one centralized entertainment district and Charlotte has many, but he voiced his eagerness to get social districts approved so they can begin to help businesses. He wants to hold the city to its timeline (public hearing in April, council vote in May).

Victoria Watlington pointed out that city residents are already begging for better traffic-calming infrastructure, which will only become more important as social districts are approved and areas like South End (potentially) become more inviting for pedestrian traffic.

She said she would like to see the safety issue addressed before she could approve any social districts, noting that drivers blow through intersections in many parts of town that might be considered for social districts.

City council approved an appropriation of $250,000 in private developer funding to go to Mecklenburg Park & Rec, which will then go to funding improvements to Cherry Park. Desired improvements were identified by neighborhood residents during community meetings in December ’22 and February ’23. The funds were promised by Southern Real Estate, Inc. as part of a 2018 rezoning petition.

Council will come together again for a zoning meeting on March 20, then won’t hold another meeting until committee discussions on April 3.


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