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Livin’ on a prayer: Pastor Ira Acree seems destined for the RTA board, although he knows little about transit, barely uses it

Acree admitted to a City Council committee that he usually drives, feels uncomfortable critiquing Dorval Carter, and had never heard of the region's looming $730M transit shortfall before.

Pastor Ira Acree at yesterday’s committee meeting. Photo: Cameron Bolton

This post is sponsored by The Bike Lane.

This article includes reporting by Cameron Bolton and commentary by John Greenfield.

As Streetsblog Chicago's Igor Studenkov discussed last month, Mayor Brandon John's nominee for the Regional Transportation Authority board, Pastor Ira J. Acree, has no professional transit experience, but does have lots of political clout.

Along with Pastor Michael Eaddy, whom the City Council confirmed for the CTA board on April 17 without a single "no" vote, Acree is one of two clergymen with no transit expertise that the mayor has tapped from his native West Side. At a time when the CTA is struggling, and state legislators have introduced a bill to merge the four local public transportation agencies, these are dubious picks for the CTA and RTA boards.

Things got particularly surreal at yesterday's City Council Committee on Transportation and the Public Way. There alderpersons weighed Acree's qualifications to serve on the board of the RTA, which makes decisions about CTA, Metra, and Pace funding and policies.

The alders questioned Acree about his knowledge of local transit issues, and he revealed that he knows very little about them. The reason for his ignorance on the subject was also made plain: He rarely rides buses or trains. What's even more baffling is that all but two alders voted to allow Acree's nomination to move on to the full Council for a final decision.

Are you smacking your darn head right now? Let's take a closer look at what was said at the committee meeting, before most of its members approved of letting a person who avoids transit make important decisions about it.

Prior to the meeting, the grassroots group Commuters Take Action (CTAction) asked the committee members to vet Acree "thoroughly to make sure he's knowledgeable and committed to improving public transportation." They pointed to a statement from longtime West Side transit advocate Rochelle Jackson, published by Streetsblog: "[Acree] probably doesn't even know a single bus route that runs through the community he lives in." CTAction's letter-writing campaign on the issue has over 940 participants.

Committee Vice Chair Andre Vasquez (40th), an outspoken critic of CTA President Dorval Carter's policies, apparently heeded the request to seek more info about the pastor's qualifications. Vasquez began by saying that he appreciates Acree for his community leadership, faith, and efforts to promote to racial equity, such as fostering Black entrepreneurship.

Andre Vasquez in his ghost outfit. Photo: John Greenfield
Vasquez once wore this placard to City Council to protest "ghost runs", CTA buses and trains that never show up due to staffing shortages. Photo: John Greenfield

"Public transportation is a public good," Vasquez noted. "As such, I believe it is imperative that those who we appoint to our transportations boards at this time have the experience necessary to help hold the different agencies accountable... [That] guides ultimately how I will vote."

The alder asked the pastor about his experience with transit, and how often he uses it. Acree replied that while he often rode the CTA as a child and as a college student, nowadays he doesn't take it much. "As a man, I don't have to use CTA. I'm fortunate to have a car." He added that he occasionally rides transit to get downtown. "These parking tickets are super high," he explained. "And so when you compare coming down at $2.75, that's much better than $40." Full CTA fare is currently $2.50 for an 'L' ride, $2.25 for a bus trip.

Vasquez then asked Acree a series of questions about Chicago transit, such as what he thinks of Carter's performance. "It would be unfair for me to grade him today," Acree responded. "I would like to have the time to have access to all the data and information that the board has, and talk with employees and even talk more with [alderpersons]. But today, I think it would be unfair to try to pass judgment on his job."

Ald. Jesse Fuentes (26th) asked Acree why he thought, unlike peer cities, Chicago has been unable to make a stronger return to pre-COVID-19 transit ridership levels. Acree called that a "trick question," adding "Clearly this CTA leadership must do a better job."

"As elected officials, we have a moral obligation to address public good issues like transportation," Fuentes noted. "This particular appointment is to the RTA. It’s... 5 years of leadership that we must be able to depend on. It is important for me that whoever we appoint understands the issues."

"And I have no problem doing that,” Acree responsed. "That’s why taking this position is critical for me because I have been an advocate. I have spoken out. I speak truth to power. And I see this as an opportunity, as an extension of my work to be able to not just stand on the outside and hold protests and say 'You guys need to make this happen.' [The RTA position is] being on the inside.''

Yet, when Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) asked Acree about addressing the $730 million Chicagoland transit budget shortfall that's predicted after federal pandemic relief funds run out next year, the pastor responded, "This is my first time hearing about [the] shortfall."

Despite all this, Vasquez and Waguespack were the only members to vote no on approving Acree during the committee's voice vote.

The full City Council usually rubber-stamps approvals by committees. But hopefully there will be enough outcry from the public against an obviously non-qualified person joining the RTA board, apparently as a political favor, that the Council will stop this (rarely ridden) train before it leaves the station.

Kudos to Block Club Chicago's Mack Liederman for his report on the meeting, which influenced my editing of this piece. And thanks to SBC reader Kevin Monahan for suggesting the headline. - JG

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