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Transit advocates turned out in force for Dorval Carter’s first quarterly meeting with alderpersons

The grassroots advocacy groups Commuters Take Action and Better Streets Chicago urged residents to show up for the hearing.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) who originally proposed the quarterly meetings, questions CTA President Dorval Carter Jr, with transit advocates behind him. Photo: John Greenfield

This post is sponsored by the Active Transportation Alliance.

Politicians and activists have long been saying that CTA president Dorval Carter Jr. should be replaced. They cited issues with "ghost" buses and trains that were scheduled but never showed up due to staffing issues; safety; and cleanliness. It didn't help matters that records show Carter barely ever rode buses and trains during a recent two-year period when service was declining.

Carter also had a bad habit of "ghosting" City Council meetings where key CTA business was being discussed. Ultimately the vast majority of alderpersons supported, and then-mayor Lori Lightfoot stopped blocking, a measure requiring Carter and other CTA officials to meet with alders on a quarterly basis if deemed necessary. 

The first such session under new Mayor Brandon Johnson was held this morning at the Council's Committee on Transportation and Public Way meeting. The grassroots advocacy groups Commuters Take Action and Better Streets Chicago urged residents to show up for the hearing. "Help us hold CTA and President Dorval Carter accountable... and be a visible presence at the hearing to send a message to City Council and the mayor that the time for change is now," they said in an announcement.

Indeed, dozens of advocates turned out for the three-hour meeting, and many of them spoke during the public comment period. To his credit, committee chair Greg Mitchell (7th) extended the time for citizens to speak well past its usual 30 minute limit, explaining "I know important this issue is to everybody."

CTA customers wait for a ride this afternoon on Madison Street along the Loop Link express bus corridor. Photo: John Greenfield

"The CTA has experienced large service cuts since 2020," noted Commuters Take Action cofounder Fabio Göttlicher as he addressed the alders. "On the 'L', we now see 21 percent fewer scheduled trains. And due to the agency’s inability to deliver on this schedule, the reality is even worse. If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say 'I’ve given up on the CTA because it’s too unreliable,' I’d probably have enough to start my own transit company. At the core of this issue is the agency’s leadership that has not been able to tackle the challenges of the past few years. The same kind of challenges that other cities have faced and overcome."

Göttlicher added that he's not happy with how the Mayor Office has handled the issue either. "Despite promising improved transit in the campaign, Mayor Johnson has hardly mentioned the word 'transit' since his inauguration. Since his first day in office, he was to make two appointments to the Chicago Transit Board. One was passed just last week, nine months later, and the other is still to be made. I beg all of the members of this committee, and all of the alders – please let it be known to the mayor that transit needs his help. Now."

Better Streets' Kyle Lucas speaks at the meeting. Behind him is traffic safety advocate Tim Shambrook, who called for more effort from the CTA and the City to prevent obstruction of bus and bike lanes by drivers, including their own staff. Photo: John Greenfield

Better Streets cofounder Kyle Lucas had some memorable commentary as well. "President Carter, I know you're getting tired of this," he said. "I know that you don't like that your reputation has been smeared like this. I know that is not something that you enjoy. And what I want to tell you is that for four years, Chicagoans have not been enjoying this either... For three-and-a-half years I have been sounding the alarm on these issues, and the alarm has been growing, and growing, and growing, as more people have seen the crisis that the CTA is facing. We are sounding the alarm because we care. [Applause from crowd.] We love the CTA. We love Chicago. And we want you to succeed. That's why we're here. We're not here because we hate you."

Dorval Carter, center, with CTA staff in the background. Photo: John Greenfield

When it was Carter's turn to address the alders and the audience he, not surprisingly, took a glass-half-full look at the current state of Chicago transit. "2023 was a very productive year, from our ongoing, aggressive hiring and recruitment marketing campaign, to our strategic efforts to strengthen the CTA customer experience, to the continued upwards trends we’ve seen in ridership, which has included 27 days of more than one-million customer rides, systemwide," he said.

Carter highlighted the following hiring efforts to improve service reliability.

  • Hosting 13 career fairs, with more than 3,800 potential employees attending.
  • Hiring and training 1,003 new bus drivers – "more than in any previous year in our agency’s history."
  • "In 2023, we added about 90 new rail operators, and to combat the normal attrition we see in this position, we are aggressively training new rail operators, with a goal of adding 200 rail operators over the course of this year," he said. But he acknowledged that hiring new train drivers "has been the biggest challenge in our quest to add more rail service."
  • Carter said that hiring increases have led to "tremendous achievements in service reliability over the past several months." He said currently nearly 100 percent of scheduled bus runs and about 90 percent of scheduled train runs are fulfilled.
  • He encouraged resident to follow the system's progress "on our next-generation performance dashboard," with data about service delivery, delays, wait times, hiring, absenteeism, safety, and cleanliness.

Then alderpersons had a chance to ask questions of the president. Perhaps the most heated moment of that phase of the hearing was when Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), who introduced the ordinance calling for the quarterly meetings, noted that it's been found that many top CTA officials and board members don't regularly use the system. He asked whether Carter planned to remedy that questionable situation by tracking and reporting transit use by the leadership.

"Our team, we are all committed to doing everything that we can to improve CTA service," Carter responded. "The ridership of individual people is not the base by which decisions are made at CTA... I think it's important for everyone to understand that while you can look at our ridership, it also becomes a focal point of criticism that detracts from the reality of what we're trying to do here... I dare say we know our system better than most people who criticize us." Many of the citizens present booed.

A 36 Broadway bus on State Street this afternoon. Photo: John Greenfield

Asked afterwards what he thought of the first quarterly meeting, Vasquez said. "I thought it was a good start. People seemed to have a lot of questions. I think there are some concerns a number of the Council members brought up." He was apparently referring to questions about issues like transit equity and safety, and the CTA's looming fiscal cliff. "The fact that this is the beginning of a quarterly conversation allows for more accountability down the line when you compare what's being said to the actual data on what improvement looks or doesn't look like."

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