IL: Grilled by aldermen over service and safety, CTA President Dorval Carter outlines bullish vision for the future

Feb. 28, 2024
The agency expects to begin adding more buses and trains in April, when it next addresses service as part of a regular union employee scheduling process.

After years of complaints from CTA riders and aldermen about the transit agency’s ability to provide frequent, reliable and safe service, President Dorval Carter told members of Chicago City Council more service would be added “in just the next few weeks.”

CTA officials said when they unveiled their budget last fall they planned to add back service in 2024 from pandemic-era cuts, but offered few details at the time about when and how they would do so.

They elaborated on the timeline Tuesday. The agency expects to begin adding more buses and trains in April, when it next addresses service as part of a regular union employee scheduling process, spokesman Brian Steele confirmed. He declined to say by how much service could increase at that time, saying that information would be coming closer to the changes.

Still, the promise of more frequent train and bus service did not stop aldermen from grilling the embattled Carter about his leadership and the challenges that have plagued his agency in recent years, including so-called ghost buses and trains, long wait times and concerns about personal safety, both real and perceived.

“When people bring up their concerns about reliability and safety, it is because we know that every Chicagoan that has a doubt about whether they should get on the train or a bus to get somewhere leads to less dollars for that system, leads to what may feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy about that system degrading rather than improving,” said outspoken CTA critic Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th.

Carter spoke before aldermen as part of a new requirement that CTA officials appear for quarterly City Council committee hearings. Aldermen tried for a year to require Carter and CTA officials to regularly testify before they succeeded, after Carter failed to show up for a 2022 council hearing and instead sent other agency officials.

Council members have taken an increasing interest in the CTA in recent years as complaints mounted and experts outlined the costs to the city of unreliable transit. The CTA’s relationship with elected officials is also taking on heightened importance as the agency, like others in the region and across the country, faces a looming financial cliff when federal pandemic aid runs out, and transit agencies look to Springfield for solutions.

Among the challenges the CTA has faced are cutbacks in service as the agency struggled to hire and retain enough staff to operate buses and trains. The CTA slashed schedules on some train lines by as much as 25% to 30% compared with 2019 service levels, an October Tribune analysis found. The cuts have left riders with long wait times and crowded buses and trains.

The rate of violent crime on CTA trains has dropped, but in 2023 remained higher than prepandemic levels, the Tribune found in a separate analysis. Chicago police and the CTA have sent more officers, unarmed security guards and K-9 teams to the train system, but crime, and the perception of crime, remain a key issue for riders and elected officials. Just this weekend, a man sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl who was riding on an inbound Purple Line train, according to police.

The girl was taken to a hospital to be evaluated. Police arrested and charged Austin resident Anfernee Thomas, 27, with criminal aggravated criminal sexual abuse. He was denied pretrial release Tuesday.

Ald. Samantha Nugent, 39th, pointed to the Saturday evening attack and the fatal early January assault of a 61-year-old woman on the Red Line, criticizing Carter for not acknowledging the crimes in his remarks before she mentioned them.

“We have to have these conversations. People aren’t going to use transit if they don’t feel safe,” she said.

Another challenge aldermen questioned was a seeming uptick in people living on trains, as those sheltering on transit became more visible when the number of office commuters dropped and as finding space in shelters or other typically reliable options became challenging. Carter highlighted $2 million the CTA is paying to the city’s Department of Family and Support Services for outreach work.

But there has also been welcome news for the CTA. Carter said ridership has improved, with the CTA providing 279 million rides last year, a 14% increase from 2022. In 2019, the CTA provided nearly 456 million rides.

Still, despite Carter’s defenses, the bevy of challenges have mounted into concerns among aldermen over his leadership of the agency. The Tribune asked each alderman who attended Tuesday’s hearing if they thought the the CTA needed new leadership. Twelve said yes, while only two said no.

“Chicago is a world-class city. And to be a world-class city, we need a world-class public transportation system,” said Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, while calling for stronger City Council oversight. “What I heard today is that is not happening.”

Many of the roughly three dozen advocates who came to the meeting criticized Carter for reportedly not taking public transit. Carter rejected the claim and swiped back at the crowd and the aldermen who questioned how frequently he and his staff ride.

“I dare say we know our system better than most people who criticize us,” Carter said.

His comment was met by shouts from the crowd.

But as public speakers and aldermen jabbed, Carter remained steadfastly bullish on the transit system’s future. It’s unfair to judge the CTA on its unavoidable pandemic struggles, he told Sigcho-Lopez, and transit’s issues will improve.

He promised rail service would be restored to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year and set his targets for daily ridership at 2 million — over double current ridership and beyond levels seen in 2019.

“We’re gonna blow through what our previous high was when we get our system fully up and running again and when we get the resources that we need,” he said.

Staffing has been a key issue behind the CTA’s service challenges, as the agency struggles to hire and retain enough employees to operate buses and trains more frequently.

Most recently attrition of rail operators has been a particular challenge, and Carter outlined a plan to add 200 new train operators this year. He said that number of operators would allow the agency to return its service levels and stay ahead of attrition.

Operators are promoted from within the ranks of existing rail employees and Carter said there are nearly enough employees in the ranks ready to fill the positions, with more being added, but they need to be trained to drive trains.

In January, the CTA had 730 total rail employees, or six more than in January 2023 as the number of rail employees fluctuated month to month. Prepandemic, 880 employees worked in rail operations, according to CTA data.

The agency had about 3,600 bus operators in January, about 400 more than the previous year but still short of the 3,800 employed prepandemic.

Still short on staff, Carter also looked to the future and conversations in Springfield about what the future of transit in Chicago might look like. His goal, he said, is to get the CTA on par with transit systems considered some of the best in the world.

“I haven’t said that this past year was the best transit system in the history of CTA. What I’ve said is this past year has been an attempt for us to stabilize and get us up to the point that we need to be,” he said. “Judge me on what I do this year, because this is the year where you’re going to start to see everything come back.”

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