CTA train passes through downtown Chicago.
The CTA has faced increasing criticism from commuters over buses and trains that arrive late or never show up and safety issues. (Getty file photo)

Chicago aldermen have been clamoring for nearly a year to put CTA President Dorval Carter on the hot seat to answer for a rash of spotty service, transit crime and “ghost trains” as the beleaguered transit agency tries to claw out of a pandemic-driven crisis.

Now, Carter is set to appear before a meeting of the City Council Transportation Committee Thursday to “speak…about our challenges and what we’re doing to address them,” according to a letter he wrote to the council last week.

It comes days after more than a dozen aldermen voted against a routine — and legally required — provision to pass along $3 million in taxes that the city collects on the CTA’s behalf as part of the city’s 2023 budget vote.

The minor item represented one of the few pieces of leverage the city’s elected aldermen — who are inundated with complaints from constituents about slow service — holds over the transit agency. As a so-called “sister agency” whose board members are single-handedly appointed by the mayor, the CTA rarely has to answer directly to aldermen the way leaders of most city departments do.

Still, the agency relies on the City Council to approve several funding mechanisms critical to the agency’s future — including, this year, a financing linchpin for the city’s long-promised bid to extend the CTA Red Line to 130th Street. The only question remains how much sand aldermen are willing to throw in the gears to bring the agency to the table.

Red Line extension TIF in the balance

Decades after Mayor Richard J. Daley floated his first promise to extend the Red Line to the city’s southern limit, the city has already staked hundreds of millions of dollars to study and plan the project. But city planning officials and CTA leaders say the only way to pay the project’s staggering $3.6 billion cost will be the creation of a new 23-year tax-increment financing district that follows the train line from the Loop to 130th Street.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), a longtime critic of Mayor Lori Lightfoot who is now running to unseat her, defended his colleagues who have threatened to stall the new district until they feel the CTA has sketched an adequate roadmap out of its crisis.

“The Red Line Extension has been talked about for at least 20 years — forcing their president to come speak to us by holding up the matter for a month is not going to make or break the project,” Lopez said. “What it will do is send a message that we’re not going to be ignored anymore. We want an agency that interacts with us.”

Others say the long-promised project, which has yet to secure needed federal funding, isn’t worth risking to make a political point.x

“The Red Line Extension is bigger than Dorval Carter,” said Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), whose Far South Side Ward would be bisected by the extended rail line.

“It means a lot to the people of the South Side of Chicago,” said Brookins, who chairs the City Council Transportation Committee. “I think it’s wrong-headed to hold your vote up on the TIF for an issue that will last significantly longer than Dorval Carter’s tenure at CTA.”

Other CTA funds the City Council channels

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) on Monday explained his vote against Lightfoot’s budget proposal in part by arguing that the city should not be “subsidizing” the CTA, which he called a “dumpster fire.”

Reilly and 16 of his colleagues voted against an ordinance on Monday that will funnel $3 million from the city’s Motor Fuel Tax fund to the CTA. The dissent was symbolic, since the annual contribution is required by state law.

And the city’s contribution to the CTA’s budget is negligible compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars furnished by both the state of Illinois and the U.S. Department of Transportation. But the city also collects some taxes on the CTA’s behalf, giving the City Council regular opportunities to withhold the funding if the agency’s leaders don’t provide updates.

In 2008, thanks to an ordinance Mayor Richard M. Daley pushed through the City Council, the CTA receives a tax on real estate transactions to supplement the revenues it pulls in from rider fares, sales taxes, state supports and federal grants. The CTA collected $71 million in real estate transfer taxes in 2021 and is projected to draw about $75 million from the revenue source for 2023.

But the City Council must vote annually to hand the revenue over to the CTA, giving aldermen a chance to publicly reprimand CTA officials and grill them on how the agency spends its money. At a hearing in January to approve the transfer, aldermen blasted CTA leadership and lamented Carter’s absence from the limelight — all before voting unanimously to send the money through.

“Unfortunately, there’s always a lot of talk, but no one backs it up with a vote,” Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), a frequent critic of CTA leaders, said Monday. “In the past, I’ve raised issues, and yet, while I’m a ‘no,’ other people are a ‘yes.’ So it’s empty.”

The City Council has other opportunities to vote on CTA initiatives, like in June, when it approved about $38 million in tax-increment financing spending for state renovation projects along the Blue, Green and Brown lines. And the agency often needs approval from the City Council to buy or sell land it owns as part of construction or administrative housekeeping.

CTA dogged by staff shortages

Carter signaled that he’ll lead off Thursday’s hearing by touting the CTA’s long-range “Meeting the Moment” strategic plan to restore service, including with plans for how agency leaders could fill hundreds of employee vacancies in bus and train operator positions. As of October, the agency counted about 650 fewer bus drivers and 100 fewer train conductors than it did in 2019 — a deficiency CTA leaders say is not unique to Chicago and solely responsible for the system’s spotty and unpredictable service.

“The U.S. transit industry has been particularly hard hit by workforce challenges related to the pandemic,” a CTA spokesperson wrote in a statement Monday, citing two national reports. “CTA has not been immune to the issue.”

Representatives of the agency say they’re ramping up “unprecedented recruitment and hiring efforts.” They say the CTA has hosted 12 job fairs so far this year, and they pointed to a training partnership with Olive-Harvey College as well as newly loosened regulations to let new recruits jump straight into full-time positions.

Aldermen say they need to see more.

“They have a lot of vacancies, and right now they’re having one poorly attended hiring event here, another poorly attended hiring event there,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), who earlier this month introduced a resolution to summon CTA leaders to a City Council committee hearing. “We need to see that there’s real things in motion to fill those vacancies.”

A spokesperson for the CTA said 150 people attended the agency’s most recent hiring event. And a recent performance “scorecard” published by the agency showed that service has improved sharply since the summer, even as ridership remains far below pre-pandemic levels.

Still, Ramirez-Rosa said he still hears “concerns every single day about the lack of reliable service on the CTA.”

“We need to make sure the CTA is functioning,” the alderman said. “If people aren’t able to get where they need to go, everything else suffers.”

Alex Nitkin

Alex Nitkin is a solutions reporter conducting investigations on efforts to fix broken systems in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois government. Before joining Illinois Answers, he worked as a reporter...