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Silver lining playbook: Could a new transit gig be a graceful way out for apparently doomed CTA chief Dorval Carter Jr.?

While Carter isn't filling a recent chairperson opening at the federal Surface Transportation Board, that raises interesting questions about a possible golden parachute.

Dorval Carter Jr. being grilled by alderpersons at a recent City Council hearing. Photo: John Greenfield

This week there has been talk that President Carter's time "is coming to the end." Actually that's a quote from the grandson of former POTUS Jimmy Carter. So let me take a moment to mention I've been a fan of his since I was a kid in the late 1970s, and he's led an exemplary life of public service in the decades since then. Job well done, Sir.

But this being a Chicago transportation news website, my job here is to discuss how the other President Carter, longtime CTA chief Dorval Carter, also seems to be arriving at the end of the line, at least in terms of his current job.

Streetsblog readers are well familiar with the increasingly rocky road Dorval Carter has traveled since CTA ridership and quality of service plummeted after the COVID-19 crisis hit Chicago in March 2020. Even after the pandemic began easing, his policies, and conditions on the CTA, have become increasingly unpopular with straphangers. While other U.S. transit systems have experienced similar challenges with unreliable bus and train schedules, crime, and cleanliness, peer cities have been much better at restoring public transportation to near-pre-COVID levels. The main problem here has been the CTA's failure to get its workforce, especially rails operators, up to normal numbers, contributing to the much-hated "ghost run" phenomenon – scheduled buses and trails that never show up.

In late April, Streetsblog's Steven Vance noted that pressure was mounting to "Get Carter" out of the CTA driver's seat. Influential Chicago and Springfield politicians, ranging from frequent agency critic Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) to usually laid-back Gov. JB Pritzker were implying, or outright announcing, that it it was time for new transit leadership. Editorials in local publications like the Tribune and Crain's joined the chorus demanding Dorval's departure.

On Monday, Ald. Vasquez, with the backing of nine other alders, including a third of the City Council's Transportation and the Public Way committee, turned up the heat by announcing a proposed ordinance that would require Carter to step down or be fired. The number of supporter of the legislation is now at least 19, approached half of the 50-member Council.

But the most powerful local leader who hasn't seemed interested in ripping the Band-Aid off our public transportation system is Carter's de-facto boss, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson. Yesterday the Sun-Times' Fran Spielman asked the obvious "Fare question: Why has Mayor Brandon Johnson resisted demands to fire CTA President Dorval Carter Jr.?"

We can't read the mayor's mind on that subject. But one thing seems clear. Johnson would much prefer if Carter, whose achievements include helping to line up the Red Line Extension, doesn't leave the job in disgrace, but instead gets a soft landing.

Yesterday morning there was hope that such a scenario might materialize, as President Joe Biden was reportedly considering tapping Carter as the next federal Surface Transportation Board chair. A Chicagoland transit advocate spoke positively of that possibility.

While Carter isn't filling a recent chairperson opening at the federal Surface Transportation Board, that raises interesting questions about a possible golden parachute.

However, that Carter appointment was ultimately not to be.

But it does raise an interesting question. Would Major Johnson "be able to get himself out of the corner he's painted himself into," as Star:Line Chicago argued, by helping to line up another plumb transportation position for Dorval Carter? And, if so, which one might be a better fit for the CTA president than his current gig?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

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