Skip to Content
Streetsblog Chicago home
Streetsblog Chicago home
Log In

Johnson appoints Interim Transportation Commissioner Tom Carney, the agency’s former “Master of Potholes,” as CDOT chief

If he helps carry out Johnson's stated goals for our transportation system, such as a lower speed limit and a citywide protected bike lane network, current skeptics may become fans.

Tom Carney at the ribbon cutting for protected bike lanes and raised crosswalks on Central Avenue in Garfield Park on December 4. Photo: CDOT

Update 3/21/24, 8:30 AM: Three months after Mayor Johnson appointed Tom Carney as CDOT Commissioner, the City Council officially confirmed Carney on Wednesday, March 20, 2024.

Update 12/23/23, 3:15 PM: Welp, Streetsblog didn't need a crystal ball to accurately predict "Walk/bike/transit advocates will probably be a little underwhelmed by the choice," although that may have been an understatement. Here's what we're seen on Twitter so far.

Update 12/22/23, 3:30 PM: Today Mayor Brandon Johnson announced he has tapped current Chicago Department of Transportation Interim Commissioner Tom Carney to be the new permanent commissioner. The appointment must be approved by the City Council, but in my decades of working at and writing about CDOT I've never heard of a majority of alderpersons rejecting a CDOT chief nominee, so it's very likely he'll be rubber-stamped.

There's no question that Carney knows how to run Chicago's transportation system, at least in an old-school, meat-and-potatoes, i.e. car-centric, manner. He's worn many hats (construction helmets?) at the department, including first deputy commissioner, managing deputy commissioner for operations, and deputy commissioner within the division of in-house construction.

Carney also served as the city’s NASCAR infrastructure committee chair and "led the efforts of city agencies and utilities to ensure the successful execution of the street race event." This isn't exactly a feather in his cap – Streetsblog has pointed out that that city planning for the race glorified driving while creating hassles for all other downtown travel modes. That's not to mention the Tribune headline, "Chicago spent at least $3.5 million for NASCAR weekend and got $620,000 in return." Perhaps that was not so successful an event for the city?

This year was actually Carney's second time as acting commissioner. In May 2019 he filled in after then-CDOT Commisioner Rebekah Scheinfeld stepped down. Scheinfeld was permanently replaced by (bicycle racer!) Gia Biagi that December. After Biagi stepped down last August, Carney took over as interim CDOT chief one again. So hopefully he's pleased that his position at CDOT won't be a case of "Always a groomsman, never a groom."

The city's press release for the appointment credits Carney with "directing the department’s implementation of more than $2 billion in combined city, state and federally funded capital projects, which include critical traffic safety and infrastructure improvements citywide." He has overseen CDOT for the last few months, when the agency has completed an impressive number of protected bike lane projects, although Biagi probably deserve credit for initiating them.

Carney, back left, at the December 4 ribbon cutting for new raised crosswalks and protected bike lanes on Central Park Avenue in Garfield Park. "We’re glad to cut the ribbon today on a project that makes it safer and easier for people to get around Garfield Park and expands Chicago’s low-stress bike network,” Carney said at the time. View a video of the ceremony here. Photo: CDOT

"Tom Carney has served admirably as the acting commissioner of CDOT, working to make the entire city accessible to all Chicagoans," Johnson said in a statement. "My administration is committed to investing in people and disinvested communities, and having a person at the helm of CDOT who understands how to deliver effective and efficient services to residents and oversee the large-scale capital improvements our city needs. Tom is the man for the job."

However, walk/bike/transit advocates will probably be a little underwhelmed by the choice. 16 organizations signed letter to the mayor calling for a "a bold and visionary" CDOT chief. There were plenty of potential candidates to consider, such as Jackson's recent friendly rival in the mayoral election, local State Rep. Kam Buckner (D-26th), who's gotten involved with a long list of sustainable transportation advocacy projects.

As you can see from my (in retrospect overly cheeky, sorry) writeup below from May 2019, when Carney first took over as interim commissioner, during his long career at CDOT he hadn't done much to distinguish himself when it came to sustainable transportation. The same has been true for the 4.5 years since them.

But let's give Commissioner Tom Carney a chance to prove himself as a champion for safe, efficient, and equitable conditions for walking, biking, and transit. If he helps carry out Johnson's stated goals for our transportation system, such as a lower speed limit, and a citywide protected bike lane network, current skeptics may become fans.

Master of Potholes: Meet Interim Transportation Commissioner Tom Carney

By John Greenfield, May 21, 2019

First, a confession. For nearly two decades I have either worked at the Chicago Department of Transportation (as bike parking program manager in the early-to-mid 2000s) or reported on it. But I don't recall ever hearing the name of Tom Carney, the gentleman Mayor Lori Lightfoot just announced will be serving as interim transportation commissioner now that former CDOT chief Rebekah Scheinfeld has hit the road (although, AFAIK, not literally like her erstwhile boss Rahm Emanuel.) Carney, who was Scheinfeld's first deputy commissioner, will hold the fort while Lightfoot searches for a new commish.

So who exactly is this guy? CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey wasn't immediately able to provide  info about what Carney has been doing at the department, so I did a little detective work. According to Carney's LinkedIn profile he has recently been in charge of CDOT's divisions of In-House Construction, Infrastructure Management, and Sign Management.

In-House Construction, with about 700 employees, is responsible for building, maintaining, and repairing Chicago's alleys, bridges, curbs, gutters, sidewalks, streets, and viaducts. Carney was recently in the news discussing the new Albany Park Tunnel, which has so far been successful in its mission of alleviating flooding on the Northwest Side.

Infrastructure Management, with roughly 75 workers, serves as the city's main agency that coordinates construction work, oversees annual and multi-year construction schedules and plans, issues construction and street permits, and inspects job locations and issues tickets for permit violations. So they're the folks that we should be lobbying to do a better job of addressing sidewalk and bikeway obstructions caused by construction projects.

Sign Management, aka the Sign Shop, with a crew of about 50, is responsible for making and installing street signs, traffic signs, and various other signs used by the city.

It's not surprising that Carney hasn't been on my radar since, aside from the permit enforcement issue, he has mostly handled meat-and-potatoes infrastructure responsibilities that aren't typically the kind of thing we cover on Streetsblog. But I've been missing out, because a Google News search revealed that he's the city go-to guy for discussing street resurfacing issues with the media in a pithy manner. The man is a regular poet of the pothole.

I found a veritable Carney-val of Tom Carney quotes from February 4, when the city announced that, in the wake of the Polar Vortex followed by a warmer spell, CDOT would be declaring an all-out war on potholes, with repair crews hitting the streets seven days a week:

"We'll be very busy; there are a lot of requests coming in. That temperature change and the moisture change really opened up some holes in the streets." (WGN)

“It certainly doesn’t do the pavement good to have these 50 degree temperature swings. But it’s where we have a series of them, multiple times during the week, is where we see the worst of the worst pothole conditions. The moisture seeps into the pavement. That moisture then expands and contracts with the freezing and the thawing and over time, it deteriorates the roadway.”  (CBS Chicago)

"We're going to be very busy, but we're ready for it. This is what the department of transportation does. We pride ourselves. We fill potholes better than any other city and we're ready to take on the challenge." (ABC Chicago)

As you can see from these quotes, Carney clearly has strong leadership ability, and he's obviously a man of action. Therefore, until Mayor Lightfoot selects a permanent CDOT chief, I have complete confidence that Chicago transportation will be in good hands.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter