Fire CTA President Dorval Carter, a new City Council resolution says

A group of aldermen are calling on Mayor Brandon Johnson and Gov. J.B. Pritzker to replace embattled Chicago Transit Authority President Dorval Carter.

Twenty aldermen, including several progressive Johnson allies and other more conservative aldermen, have so far signed onto the resolution that also calls for Carter to resign, according to its author, Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th. Though nonbinding, it’s the sharpest City Hall rebuke of Carter yet as the leader’s CTA continues to struggle with hiring, service cuts, lagging ridership and a looming financial cliff.

“As things continue, change is going to have to happen,” Vasquez said Monday. “I think no matter where you are in the city of Chicago, constituents and the public demand better service and they are not getting it.”

The outspoken CTA critic’s resolution blasts Carter for failing to add enough rail and bus operators amid high attrition and not keeping up with post-pandemic service recoveries seen in other big cities like Washington, D.C., and New York City. It criticizes the agency president for not being forthcoming about the challenges the CTA faces and waiting too long to make much-needed fixes.

The resolution was likely no surprise to CTA officials: Vasquez could be seen discussing it with an agency staffer at City Hall last week. The CTA fired back in a statement Monday afternoon, calling the resolution’s claims “inaccurate” and “misleading.” Service has been added, ridership is up, crime is decreasing and service is more reliable, “all evidence that CTA’s recent efforts are working,” the statement said.

“Noticeably absent from the proposed ordinance is recognition of any of these recent and significant accomplishments by the CTA — an organization of more than 10,000 hard-working women and men, who are also constituents of those behind this ordinance,” the statement said.

Vasquez and Ald. Matt Martin, 47th, plan to push for more backers before introducing the bill at the May 22 full City Council meeting. In early conversations, only a handful of aldermen have declined to sign on, Vasquez said.

“I have not heard a lot of strong praise (for Carter),” he said.

For months, many aldermen have quietly grumbled about Carter’s performance, but declined to make their disapproval public. As Carter appeared before the council’s Transportation Committee in February, 12 aldermen in attendance told the Tribune the CTA needed a new leader, while just two said it did not.

At the time, Martin said he was a “wait and see” after speaking with Carter about his plans to improve CTA service this spring. But he changed his tune when the CTA added little rail service upon releasing new schedules in April, tweeting, “Current leadership is failing Chicago riders.”

Martin said Monday CTA frustrations have long been top of mind for his constituents. He shares their complaints with the agency often, he said.

“We are using patience. At the end of the day, we need outcomes to change, we need outcomes to improve,” Martin said. “That’s just not happening.”

In recent weeks, Carter has only faced more pushback. Last month, Pritzker said the CTA needs an “evolution of the leadership.” Pritzker has no authority to fire the head of the CTA, but he appoints three of CTA’s seven board members and Carter’s relationship with state officials has taken on heightened importance as lawmakers weigh a proposal to merge the CTA with the region’s other transit agencies.

Johnson has avoided taking a stance on Carter’s future, repeating that he will not discuss “personnel issues,” a stance he has also stuck to when asked about other leaders in the hot seat.

Last Monday, Johnson again declined to respond when asked if Carter should be fired in an interview with the Tribune.

“What I’m committed to doing right now is making sure that our ridership continues to go up, which it has,” he said.

Control of Carter’s future ultimately belongs to Johnson, who appoints the majority of the CTA board members who oversee the CTA president. The City Council resolution cannot compel the mayor to order a change in CTA leadership, but could add more pressure, particularly if his progressive allies strongly support the effort.

Johnson should pay more attention to the growing pushback, Vasquez said. He called on the mayor to find an interim CTA leader and start a national search if there is not a replacement ready.

“It’s a pretty clear sign that there is plenty of runway to get it done,” he said. “Much like the trains and buses across the city, our neighbors are tired of waiting.”

But the resolution could nonetheless face a difficult path forward in the City Council, where it could easily be stalled with parliamentary maneuvers or voted down. Many aldermen have praised the Red Line expansion set to bring rail access to much of the Far South Side, an expensive project to be paid for in part with federal money Carter helped secure.

The CTA has faced years of complaints about the transit agency’s ability to provide frequent, reliable and safe service. In February, Carter told aldermen he would restore train service to pre-pandemic levels this year, and would begin adding back bus and rail service in the spring. The CTA’s spring bus schedules added service on 29 of the agency’s 127 routes, but rail service gains were few.

Last week, South and West Side aldermen approved in committee a Johnson nominee for the Regional Transportation Authority board, the body that handles financial oversight for CTA, Pace and Metra. The nominee, politically connected pastor Rev. Ira Acree, struggled to answer basic questions about the agency.

Acree said during the hearing that he was not aware of the $730 million financial cliff the region’s four transit agencies face as federal COVID-19 money dries up, but the aldermen nonetheless passed him through, citing his ability to learn and unique perspective. Only Vasquez and Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, voted against him, while Aldermen Jessie Fuentes, 26th, and Bill Conway, 34th, voted to approve.

Aldermen also recently approved two new CTA board members. One comes from a background in transit-oriented development, and the other is a pastor who was previously on the police oversight board.

The resolution is currently supported by Vasquez, Martin and Aldermen Daniel La Spata, 1st; Peter Chico, 10th; Nicole Lee, 11th; Julia Ramirez, 12th; Marty Quinn, 13th; Raymond Lopez, 15th; Derrick Curtis, 18th; Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th; Fuentes; Ruth Cruz, 30th; Felix Cardona Jr., 31st; Waguespack; Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, 33rd; Conway; Brendan Reilly, 42nd; Jim Gardiner, 45th; Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth, 48th; and Maria Hadden, 49th, according to Vasquez.

To pass, the resolution would need 26 votes. It remains to be seen whether the aldermen who currently back the resolution will vote to adopt it.