People - July 2007
Ron Tober doesn’t mind being a bureaucrat people love to hate. “I’m used to heavy-duty urban politics,” the CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System says. “You need thick skin, and you need to maintain your cool and keep your facts straight.”
But sometimes, his facts get him into trouble. Take the first leg of the Queen City’s light-rail system. It’s $37 million over budget: $463 million and counting. And the start date for the 9.6-mile route between Pineville and downtown Charlotte has been pushed back twice — most recently to Novem-ber — because of design problems. His office also spent $180,000 to renovate an 80-year-old trolley before dropping plans to put it back in service downtown.
Despite those missteps, Tober says the city’s transportation system is efficient compared with those in other cities, including systems he ran in Cleveland and Seattle. But critics say his work in Cleveland is cause for worry. The light-rail system is called “Tober’s Trolley” because of low usage, which he blames on a poor economy and a failure to extend the line. He says Charlotte’s light-rail system is needed to ease traffic, which thickens with the city’s growth.
Trains have been part of his life since he grew up near some tracks in Cleveland. He got a bachelor’s in engineering in 1969 from Cornell University and a master’s in operations research in 1971 from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He spent a summer helping assess the city’s rapid-transit line. That and unrest in major U.S. cities led to a transportation career. “I wanted to do something to help people.”
He worked for public transportation or consultants in Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Boston, Seattle and Springfield, Mass., but came back to Cleveland in 1988. He left in 1999 for a chance to build the Charlotte transit system nearly from the ground up. But light rail has been a lightning rod for opponents, whose petition drive put a measure on the ballot this November to rescind a half-cent sales tax that underpins CATS’ budget, which was $273 million in 2006-07. Losing it, Tober says, could force cuts in bus service.
Now 60, he plans to retire in “a couple of years” and build model railroads. “It’s all in boxes waiting for me.” And few will be there to criticize him.