After ghosting the City Council for months, embattled CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. showed up and took his lumps Thursday from alderpersons concerned about crime, filth, hiring shortages and scheduling discrepancies that strand and infuriate the riders they represent.
The public dressing-down before the Transportation Committee appears to be the price Carter had to pay as he seeks to win City Council approval of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to pay for extending the CTA’s Red Line to 130th Street.
Lightfoot wants to create a transit tax-increment-financing district to bankroll $950 million of the $3.6 billion cost of that extension.
The questioning first focused on trash on CTA buses, then moved to the shortage of employees — there are now about 1,000 openings — that Carter repeatedly has blamed for “ghost buses and trains” that appear on the CTA’s online tracker but never arrive.
But the primary focus was on the steady stream of violent crime that has left pre-pandemic riders afraid to return to CTA buses and trains.
“It’s not a perception thing. There are some that want to say it’s a perception thing. When people are getting shot. When people are getting robbed and raped and everything else, it’s not perception. It’s real,” said retiring North Side Ald. Harry Osterman (48th).
“You’ve got to own it. You’ve really got to ... find a way to make it safe. That is the ballgame. And there needs to be a plan. … Your long-term sustainability relies on ridership. ... There won’t be enough money to sustain your operation without riders.”
Earlier this week, downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) branded the CTA an unsafe, unreliable “dumpster fire.”
On Thursday, Reilly’s criticism was a bit more muted.
He complained that intimidated riders literally must “step over” people who have taken up residence on trains and buses, and likewise have been forced to stand when seats are taken up by people sleeping on the system.
“I’ve seen situations where there are altercations, and the security folks beeline it in the opposite direction” — that is, if “they can see something happening at all when they’re not looking at their cellphones.”
Surveillance cameras are “not a good replacement for boots on the ground and having officers literally walking through trains,” Reilly told Carter.
Carter said he’s had “conversations” with the Chicago Police Department about the need for police officers to be more visible. He noted it’s “not enough to have ’em sitting in a car outside the station. We need for them to come into the station.”
But, he said: “I’m a transit guy. I know how to run buses and trains. I am not a crime expert.”
South Side Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th) tied crime to the upcoming request for the Red Line TIF.
“We know that you’re gonna come back and ask for a very large amount of money. I have a lot of constituents who say, ‘I would ride any train except the Red Line because we’ve had so much crime, for whatever reason, on that Red Line. Is there are plan … for the Red Line specifically?” Curtis said.
Carter acknowledged the Red Line “has had problems with crime” and he has “deployed additional resources from my unarmed security guards and canine units” to the Red Line. The Chicago Police Department has done the same. Retiring Transportation Committee Chairman Howard Brookins (21st) was so concerned about crime, he proposed what he called “CTA TV.”
“Stream it live on the internet. Because I know that I would watch my kid, who claimed he was on the bus or the train, come from Lincoln Park to the house. … At any given time, any one of us in this room may be looking at it for one of their loved ones. And if we saw something, we’re gonna say something,” Brookins said.
Carter called it an “interesting idea” worth considering.
South Side Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) could not resist a reference to how tough it was just to get Carter to appear before the Transportation Committee.
“I thought we was gonna have to do the ‘Where’s Waldo?’ since you didn’t show up to the last meeting,” Taylor said.
“It’s not until y’all in trouble — and let’s not even bring up the Red Line extension — that y’all want to come and talk to City Council. And that’s not fair to us. From this point on, there is an expectation of you as the president to work closely with us so we can help you with the problems, because our constituents depend on CTA like their lives depend on it.”
North Side Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) asked Carter how he felt about being forced to appear before the Transportation Committee every three months or every six months or risk losing city funding.
Carter replied he would show up however many times a year he is asked.