In late 2014, the CTA spent about $28,000 to install 20 surveillance cameras at its Linden Avenue rail yard in Wilmette, the northern terminal of the L’s Purple Line.
The cameras were meant to deter crime, including the tagging efforts of graffiti artists and others whose vandalism across the city and suburbs costs the public transit agency hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, according to the CTA’s estimates.
Yet taggers have hit more CTA rail cars in the north suburb so far this year than in each of the previous three years, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
Vandalism is also on the rise in the city of Chicago, which accounts for the bulk of the CTA’s L and subway network. The Chicago Police Department logged 429 vandalism incidents on CTA property in the city this year through late October, records show. For all of last year, it got reports of 302 instances of CTA vandalism and, for 2015, 348.
In Wilmette, the police have recorded 23 graffiti incidents involving more than 50 rail cars at the Linden facility since the beginning of 2014. The number of trains hit by taggers is higher so far this year than in each of the past three years.
Many riders surely are more concerned about bigger issues involving the CTA, like the looming prospect of the first across-the-board fare hike in eight years and, as the Sun-Times reported in July, a 16 percent rise in serious crime throughout the transit system.
Still, graffiti means trains are taken out of service for cleanup and any necessary repairs, in an effort to discourage more tagging.
“For at least the past three decades, CTA’s policy is to not put cars into service if they have been tagged with graffiti,” agency spokesman Steve Mayberry says. “This prevents graffiti artists from getting any public exposure.”
Then, there’s the cost, which though relatively small, is another drain on a mass transit agency that’s under pressure from City Hall to maintain current service levels and from the Regional Transportation Authority to close a $33 million budget gap.
Daniel Cuevas, 53, a lifelong Chicagoan who takes public transportation daily between home and work, says vandalism on the CTA seems to have evolved over time.
“There was trains and buses with a whole lot of graffiti,” Cuevas, a maintenance engineer who lives in Logan Square, recalls during a trip on the Red Line. “But it’s really been cut down.”
Compared to graffiti’s heyday, “There isn’t as much paint,” says Cuevas, who sees more “scratches on signs and windows. That stuff’s everywhere.”
Crime-scene photos snapped by the Wilmette police, though, show graffiti artists still like to make a splash. “Not My President” was painted on the exterior of one rail car. Another had “UZEM” in big black letters and “NASA MEGA” and “BOYS,” likely referring to tagging crews.
In one particularly brazen incident earlier this year at the Wilmette yard, three full tracks of CTA trains — with more than a dozen L cars — were tagged with the likes of “BIG TIME,” “CIA,” “SAINT PABLO” and other markings.
Kyle Murphy, the Wilmette police chief, calls the number of incidents at the Linden yard “fairly stable” compared with past years and credits the CTA for having “made significant improvements to security at the facility.”
Still, after one graffiti attack this year, an officer noted in a police report, “There is no video surveillance system that provides coverage to the area where this graffiti was spray painted.”
After a 2016 incident, another Wilmette police report said a CTA supervisor “has complained many times prior about the need for cameras, but she does not predict the status to change anytime soon.”
When a tagging crew that was believed to possibly have come from Europe hit the Linden yard in 2015, a police report cited inadequate camera coverage.
CTA spokesman Mayberry says graffiti “is an issue, along with myriad other capital and operating issues we face on a daily basis. For CTA, however, investing many hundreds of thousands of dollars in security cameras at a single rail yard means that other investments that are just as important to CTA as graffiti are not being made.”
Mayberry says the CTA “plans to expand its security-camera network at Linden, but the challenges to large-scale expansion are significant in terms of cost and logistics.”
In part, he says that’s because the “high-voltage system” that powers the trains carries “many underground obstructions.”
The CTA “does take graffiti seriously,” Mayberry says, and “has a multifaceted program to address it” that includes working with local police and “an ongoing public-messaging campaign highlighting the dangers of trespassing on CTA tracks.”
The CTA has a dozen rail yards. Of those, it says its Rosemont and Midway Airport yards have had the most graffiti incidents this year. But the CTA won’t say how many of its rail yards have cameras.
In 2014, the CTA announced it would begin suing vandals and their families to recover costs from any damage and cleanup. But only five lawsuits were ever filed, all of them in 2014, according to Mayberry, “resulting in $13,229 in restitution.
“The program is ongoing,” he says. “But it’s important to note that these lawsuits involve minor children only and can move forward only following the arrest and successful conviction of a minor child whose parents have the capacity to pay restitution.”
Separately, the CTA says it has collected nearly $30,000 in restitution as a result of vandalism-related criminal cases.
In Wilmette, the CTA has logged 10 graffiti incidents at the Linden yard since 2015, with a total cleanup cost of just over $40,000. Records show the police have logged more incidents, though: eight involving 13 train cars at the L yard in 2015, five involving eight train cars in 2016 and seven involving 24 train cars so far this year.
How much the CTA has been spent over the past five years dealing with vandalism systemwide isn’t something the agency keeps track of in a comprehensive way. Mayberry says the CTA “does not maintain graffiti removal costs as a line-item business expense.”
But the agency produced figures showing that graffiti and other vandalism cost the CTA a total of more than $1.3 million over three years: $362,534 in 2015, $642,146 in 2016 and $343,017 so far this year.
Tagging and other vandalism on CTA property seldom result in arrest. Chicago Police Department records show more than 80 percent of the incidents of vandalism reported in the city on CTA property go unsolved. In Wilmette, the police say they’ve made arrests in two or three cases over the past several years, including one in which a Philadelphia man was spotted in the Linden yard by someone who called the police.