CTA President Pledges to Restore Service to Pre-Pandemic Levels, Faces Frustration at City Council Hearing

CTA President Dorval Carter said the transit agency plans to restore reduced bus and train service to pre-pandemic levels this year, including a 44% boost to bus service, with the process beginning in the coming weeks.

Carter spoke Tuesday at the first of an expected series of quarterly hearings before the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Transportation and Public Way. The hearings come after years of frustration over unreliable service and complaints the CTA president hasn’t been accountable to politicians and the public.

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“Things don’t always go correctly — I understand that,” Carter said, but echoed his previous comments that the agency is still dealing with lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis the embattled CTA leader noted he “didn’t have any roadmap” to navigate.

Many of the agency’s struggles with providing more frequent and reliable service have been directly tied to the loss of bus and train operators. According to data obtained by WTTW News, 4,751 people worked as a bus or train operator at some point during 2023. That’s a drop from the agency’s recent peak of 5,124 operators in 2019.

Carter said that last year the CTA hired more than 1,000 new bus operators, the most in its history. But data shows a net drop in train operators last year, which the agency has been working to combat through more recruiting efforts.

Speaking during the public comment period Tuesday, one transit advocate called for hiring people directly into train operator positions rather than requiring them to first work as rail flaggers overseeing the safety of crews on active tracks. Carter called hiring new train operators the CTA’s “biggest challenge,” telling alderpeople 90 new staffers were added last year with the goal of 200 new rail operators this year.

Hamstrung by resignations and retirements, Carter in 2022 announced the agency was adjusting its train and bus schedules to reflect the service the CTA could actually provide with current staffing levels. At the time, he was adamant it was not a service cut. At Tuesday’s hearing, Carter said the agency this year would “restore” service to pre-pandemic levels, with new schedules coming in the near future.

Calling 2023 a “productive” year, Carter touted more than 27 days where ridership topped 1 million. But ridership numbers are still only about 60% of pre-pandemic levels. Money from riders’ fares and passes in 2023 was $256 million below what the CTA took in from passengers in 2019, with federal COVID-19 relief funding making up the continued shortfall in revenue.

With previous estimates showing the relief money will run out in late 2025 or early 2026, Carter was asked how the CTA planned to tackle the coming fiscal cliff.

“The size and magnitude of the gap that we’re talking about are not of the nature that allows me to come up with, quote, ‘a plan’ on how we’re going to survive it. The impact of a $700 million gap in our budget is basically completely devastating,” Carter said, but noted he and other public transportation leaders in the Chicago area are working with the Illinois General Assembly to find a solution.

Transit advocates from around northeastern Illinois have been working on a potential plan to infuse up to $1.5 billion in new funding for CTA, Metra and Pace. That plan, overseen by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP, also includes potential governance changes for the transit agencies, which could create a new, unified transit system overseen by the RTA.

The new funding for transit could come from a variety of new taxes and fees floated in the CMAP report, but Carter said the CTA hasn’t yet identified any of those it will specifically advocate for with lawmakers.

Carter was also dinged for safety and security concerns on the CTA, including by Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th Ward) for not mentioning during his testimony a reported sexual assault of a teenage girl on the system last week. Carter said he shared Nugent’s outrage, and that he is committed to working with the City Council to advocate for more security resources, including from the Chicago Police Department. But Ald. Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth (48th Ward) cautioned against relying too heavily on the police, noting her children and their friends don’t feel safer when they see an increased police presence.

The agency leader was also asked about the status of the CTA’s outreach program for people using trains as a shelter of last resort, which WTTW News and Block Club Chicago reported on last week. Ald. Jessie Fuentes (26th Ward) called for another “accelerated moving event” like the single one held in 2023, which allows unhoused people on the CTA to get quickly connected with a place to live. Twenty people at last year’s event were able to obtain housing.

Committee Chair Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th Ward) allowed for extended public comment, which many residents and advocates used to criticize Carter’s leadership and the agency’s issues with service delivery and transparency. Some advocates called on Mayor Brandon Johnson to live up to campaign promises to improve transit, saying he’s barely mentioned the issue since taking office. One public commenter summed up her frustration succinctly: “I demand you fire Dorval Carter.”

Carter pushed back against some of the advocates and alderpeople who’ve criticized his leadership, saying it “detracts” from efforts to improve transit and arguing they aren’t operating with the full set of facts the agency has.

“I dare say we know our system better than most people who criticize us,” Carter said, drawing jeers from some members of the gallery.

Among the other hits Carter has taken publicly was reporting last year from Block Club Chicago, which obtained agency records showing the CTA’s president and many of its leadership team rarely took buses and trains. At Tuesday’s City Council hearing, committee Vice Chair Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th Ward) asked Carter how he and his team got to the meeting, with Carter answering that he took the CTA and many agency officials also nodding in the affirmative.

Contact Nick Blumberg: [email protected] | (773) 509-5434 | @ndblumberg

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