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Twisted priorities at CATS 

A mile-and-a-half walk to catch a bus

Margie Suggs has done a lot of walking in the last two years. To get to work every morning, she walks a mile and a half down Highway 49 to the bus stop in the heat, rain, sleet and snow. There's no sidewalk, so, like the dozens of other people who make the same three-mile round trip on foot each day, she's forced to walk along the shoulder of the road as cars whiz by. Because the lighting is dim along the road, she often walks in the dark to catch the 6:25am bus. There is no bus shelter at the Mallard Creek Church Road bus stop where she boards bus #39. Sometimes, when the weather is bad, Suggs, who does administrative support work at Wachovia uptown, arrives at her job soaked from head to foot after a driving rain.

She and others who live at Harris Houston Apartments and in the surrounding Back Creek area near UNCC make this daily pilgrimage because they don't have cars and are dependent on mass transit to get to their jobs. For a year and a half, Suggs' pleas to elected officials and the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) for a closer bus stop have been largely brushed aside. At one meeting, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory asked a city staffer to look into the problem, but Suggs never heard from anyone. Another time, she presented a petition with the signatures of 38 people who said they would ride the bus if the line were extended to the Pavilion Road area.

After pressure from neighborhood leaders, CATS had tentatively agreed to extend the bus line to the Back Creek area -- sometime in February. That leaves Suggs and the others to shiver through another winter on their way to work.

The fact that anyone, anywhere in Mecklenburg County -- home of the half-cent sales tax for mass transit that's supposed to bring in $50 million a year -- has to walk a mile and a half to a bus stop twice a day is an outrage. That the folks having to do the walking in this case are people who are dependent on mass transit to get to work makes the situation shameful.

In response to my questions, CATS said that it's taken them this long to start up the new line because significant lead time is needed to plan, budget for and implement a new line. Because of union contracts, which require workers to change routes three times a year, the new route won't start until February, the next time bus drivers are scheduled to "switch."

So let me get this straight. When the feds we're wooing for light rail money want something, we jump. But when folks forced to live where they do by their economic situation need bus service to get to work, they have to wait a year and a half while CATS studies something? Various consultants' studies of the entire south corridor line have happened in less time than that.

In fact, you can bet that if federal funding for a light rail line were somehow contingent on getting an extension of this bus line, those citizens trudging along Highway 49 would have a heated ride to work that practically dropped them off at their doorsteps in under a week.

That CATS didn't begin to show much interest in this issue until Bernie Samonds, President of the Derita-Statesville Road Community Organization, began hammering them relentlessly on it in his popular newsletter is equally alarming.

"I feel just terrible for them," said Samonds. "You see these people when you're coming back into town and by then it's heavy rush hour traffic and they're trying to share the shoulder of the road because you've got high grass, there's no gravel to speak of and there are no sidewalks, so literally they're just dodging cars. I see them do this and then I look just down the street and here's a bus just sitting at the intersection."

Samonds feels that the problem is bigger than 40 people trudging to work each day. I agree. It's a mark of how far off base our transit plan has gotten that our leaders obsess about getting people who want to drive out of their cars while those who need transportation have to grovel for it. It's particularly ironic that around the time that Suggs began her quest for a bus stop, a shuttle service was running empty through the SouthPark area, unwanted and unused, before it was shut down at a loss to taxpayers of hundreds of thousands of dollars. No one got out of their cars in SouthPark while Suggs waited in the rain.

That a mile-and-a-half gap is allowed to exist anywhere there's a demand for transit, particularly in a growing area around the university, tells me that using the south corridor light rail line as a development tool to expand uptown westward is more important to our leaders than what voters approved the mass transit plan to do -- create an accessible and dependable alternative for getting people like Margie Suggs where she needs to go.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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