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Asked about CTA at debate, Johnson focuses on reliability, Vallas calls for more cops

Vallas and Johnson at tonight’s debate. Image: NBC Chicago

The question of how best to address the CTA's reliability, safety, and cleanliness issues continues to be a major campaign issue in the Chicago mayoral race. During tonight's debate between former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson in advance of the April 4 runoff election, Union League Club of Chicago member Manuel Galvin provided a question. "Commuters want to have safe, clean, and on-time buses and trains. What specifically will you do to improve public transit?"

Johnson's response mostly focused on strategies to make transit operate more efficiently and keep CTA staffing at full strength so as to avoid service gaps. "Right now our public transit system is unreliable and it's unsafe," he said. "This is why I'm committed to making sure we're making critical investments, particularly for working people who overwhelmingly rely on public transportation. So we're going to increase the number of bus-only lanes... We're going to make sure that there are traffic signals that give preference to [buses.]"

"But we're also going to make sure that we are expanding the workforce," Johnson added. "[We need to] make sure that the workforce is fully supported, and that we're paying them a real livable wage."

Johnson, who lives in Austin near near the Green Line, argued that route "is the most inequitable transportation line in the city of Chicago. And that's why I'm committed to making sure that we're making full investments to secure a reliable public transportation system."

In contrast, Vallas's answer focused on addressing crime through more policing. "The CTA is on the verge of financial crisis," he accurately noted. Vallas cited a stat (apparently solely reported by the conservative website Wirepoints, in an article that called for cutting CTA service) that CTA farebox revenue is only currently accounting for 18 percent of the operating budget when, under state law, it's normally supposed to account for 50 percent.

"The WBEZ survey, and my conversation with all the transit unions, is public safety is the overriding issue," Vallas said. "It's also the reason that they can't keep employees. 500,000 fewer riders a day. You've got to prioritize public safety. You've got to make sure that there are police officers on the platform, that there are police officers riding the trains, like New York, there are police officers at the station... So public safety is the overriding issue now."

The potential downsides of adding more police to the CTA were made obvious in February 2020, when a police officer shot up an escalator of the Grand Red Line station while trying to apprehend an unarmed man who illegally walked between ‘L’ cars, causing serious injuries and putting bystanders at risk. In the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Boston, well-trained unarmed Transit Ambassadors have been deployed as an alternative to more armed security.

Read about Vallas' and Johnson's past statements on sustainable transportation.

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