Key City Panel Advances Johnson’s Pick to Serve on RTA Board After Tense Hearing

The Rev. Ira Acree appears on “Chicago Tonight” on Nov. 24, 2015. (WTTW News)The Rev. Ira Acree appears on “Chicago Tonight” on Nov. 24, 2015. (WTTW News)

A key Chicago City Council panel advanced Mayor Brandon Johnson’s nomination of the Rev. Ira Acree to serve on the board of the Regional Transportation Authority, after a tense hearing that focused on the problems facing public transportation in Chicago.

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Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th Ward) and Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) were the only members of the city’s Transportation and Public Way Committee on Wednesday to vote against Acree’s nomination, which advanced on a voice vote to the full City Council. A final vote could come as soon as May 22.

Acree, the politically connected pastor of the Greater St. John Baptist Church on the West Side, faced unusually pointed questions from alderpeople, who are under increasing pressure to make significant changes to the CTA, which has yet to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The system, which saw its ridership plummet during the pandemic as crime and violence increased, is facing a $730 million deficit in early 2026 once federal relief expires.

Acree repeatedly struggled to articulate exactly what changes he would make if confirmed to the RTA board to serve a five-year term, declining to answer questions about Johnson’s specific transit agenda and how he would implement it as a member of the 16-person board charged with financial oversight. Board members earn $25,000 annually and meet once per month.

Acree could not answer Waguespack’s question about how he would address that massive budget gap, which has sparked proposals to merge the Chicago area’s three separate public transit agencies — the CTA, suburban bus system Pace and commuter rail system Metra — into a single agency.

Read More: CTA Touts Report Showing Transit’s Key Role in Chicago Region – But Agency President Quiet on Proposal to Merge CTA, Metra and Pace

The fiscal cliff looming for Chicago’s public transit system has been in the spotlight for months, along with efforts to make CTA bus and train service more reliable and safer.

“Well, No. 1, this is my first time hearing about a $735 million shortfall,” Acree said, repeating the incorrect budget deficit number mentioned by Waguespack.

The proposed merger would be a “serious undertaking” with arguments on both sides of the issue, Acree said.

In addition, Acree declined to tell Vasquez whether he thought CTA President Dorval Carter should be fired, saying he would examine his performance if confirmed.

Acree told Vasquez he drove to City Hall to appear at his confirmation hearing to sit on the board overseeing the CTA, Pace and Metra — although he added that he relied on the CTA as a teen and now uses it to get to the Loop to avoid paying for parking.

“I don’t have to use CTA,” Acree said. “I’m fortunate to have a car. But I use CTA often when I come downtown, because even though I am a working pastor, these parking tickets are super high.”

Acree, who endorsed Johnson during the 2023 election after backing former Mayor Lori Lightfoot in 2019, said, if confirmed, he would use his seat on the RTA board as an extension of his work as a civil rights leader.

“Instead of holding protests, I’ll be on the inside and be very instrumental in making changes,” Acree said, adding that his “diverse voice” and “unique skill set” will be an asset to the board.

“This is an opportunity to help my city be better,” Acree said.

Acree was a thorn in the side of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, leading efforts to reform the Chicago Police Department after a White Chicago police officer murdered Laquan McDonald, a Black teen, in 2014.

A longtime advocate for efforts to reduce gun violence, Acree delivered the benediction at the January 2023 inauguration of Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

After Johnson’s election as Chicago mayor, Acree unsuccessfully applied to replace him on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. That position is now held by Commissioner Tara Stamps, who won the Democratic primary in March to serve out the remaining two years of Johnson’s term.

Acree is also a close ally of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who attended Wednesday’s hearing in a very public show of support.

Acree’s nomination exposed tension between two critical parts of Johnson’s political base: progressive Chicagoans who have championed public transportation as a critical function of city government and Black Chicagoans who wish to see longtime leaders elevated to positions of power.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th Ward) and Ald. Michelle Harris (8th Ward) passionately defended Acree’s nomination, telling committee members that Acree would represent Black Chicagoans who live on the South and West sides.

Taliaferro said it was “absolutely wrong” to say that Acree was unqualified to serve on the RTA board, despite his lack of transit experience or expertise.

“I need someone who is going to stand up for my community,” said Taliaferro, who proposed renaming a Chicago street after Acree in 2016. That proposal never came to a vote, and the City Council soon after changed the rules to prevent the brown and white signs from honoring living people.

Acree is Johnson’s third appointee to the boards that oversee the city's public transportation systems, and the second West Side pastor tapped by the mayor to oversee Chicago’s buses and trains without having transit-specific experience.

Without debate, the City Council in April confirmed Johnson’s appointment of pastor Michael Eaddy to the CTA board. Like Acree, Eaddy has no record on transit issues.

Johnson’s first pick for the CTA board, urban planner and transit advocate Roberto Requejo, took his seat Wednesday. Requejo served as the executive director of Elevated Chicago, which advocates for residential and commercial developments designed to encourage residents to use public transportation.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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