Gov. J.B. Pritzker says ‘evolution of the leadership’ needed at CTA

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker called for an “evolution of the leadership” at the CTA, as embattled agency President Dorval Carter has looked to Springfield for solutions to a looming budget crisis.

Pritzker is the latest to weigh in on Carter’s leadership, as the CTA president has found himself in the hot seat while the agency struggled in recent years to provide frequent, reliable and safe service. At the same time, the Illinois General Assembly is weighing a sweeping set of recommendations about what Chicago-area transit could look like in the future, including whether the CTA should be consolidated with Metra and Pace into one agency and how to address a transit fiscal cliff expected when federal pandemic aid runs out.

Thursday night, from his ceremonial office in the Illinois State Capitol, Pritzker said changes were needed at CTA, and “that’s going to take some new leadership and additional leadership.”

“I think that there needs to be an evolution of the leadership in order for us to get where we need to go with CTA,” he said during an unrelated news conference.

Though CTA is based in Chicago, Pritzker has some measure of control over the agency, appointing three of the transit board’s seven members. And the recommendations under consideration by lawmakers have heightened the importance of Carter’s relationship with state officials.

The recommendations come as the region’s public transit agencies face a combined $730 million budget hole once federal COVID-19 relief funding starts running out, which could be as soon as 2025. The agencies have warned that failure to plug the hole could lead to catastrophic service cuts and fare increases.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning drafted the set of recommendations, sent to lawmakers in December, to address public transit funding, governance and the experience of riding buses and trains, proposing $1 billion or more in new public funding annually, options to revamp oversight of the region’s transit agencies and other suggestions. Many of the suggestions are likely to be politically contentious, which makes the CTA’s relationship with lawmakers crucial during negotiations.

But the CTA recently has faced a range of challenges, including so-called ghost buses and trains, long wait times and concerns about personal safety, both real and perceived.

Carter has come under fire as complaints have mounted, drawing the attention of some other elected officials. Chicago aldermen tried for a year to haul in Carter and CTA officials to regularly testify before they succeeded. Later, in February, they brought him before City Council as part of a new requirement that CTA officials appear for quarterly committee hearings.

On Tuesday, Ald. Matt Martin called for Carter to be fired, citing the CTA’s failure to add promised service. The Tribune has previously reported that CTA slashed train schedules by as much as 25% to 30% compared with 2019 levels, and lagged in adding back service, even as other cities began to do so. CTA recently began to add back some bus service and said it would be adding back train service, but train schedules unveiled earlier this month included few service additions, with much scheduled service expected to remain similar to previous levels.

Few aldermen have publicly called for Carter’s firing, though a large majority of the council’s Transportation Committee told the Tribune in February they wanted Carter ousted. But Mayor Brandon Johnson declined to put pressure on Carter Wednesday when asked if the transit leader still has his confidence.

“We continue to evaluate all of our leaders, and Dorval Carter is no exception,” he said. “In the event they don’t live up to our expectation, we will make another decision.”

Asked Friday if he agrees with Pritzker that the CTA needs new leadership, Johnson did not answer.

“It’s my job to determine that leadership,” he said.

When pressed, he declined to say how he is evaluating Carter’s performance and when he would share any decision on the transit leader’s future. He repeated that he does not publicly discuss personnel issues.

Then, in an apparent swipe at the governor, he said, “If people want to be mayor, they should run for it.”

While much attention has been placed on Carter in Chicago, Pritzker’s comments reflect the latest sentiments out of Springfield about how state officials believe the CTA needs improvement under his leadership.

Just last week, the Illinois Senate unanimously passed bipartisan legislation related to a serious collision in November between a CTA train and snowplow near Chicago’s border with Evanston that left at least 16 people injured, seven of them CTA employees. The measure, which now moves to the House for consideration, would require annual reports from the CTA, Illinois Department of Transportation, Regional Transportation Authority and Metra detailing the safety recommendations made over a one-year period from the National Transportation Safety Board, as well as the status of their implementation.

The reports, which would spell out the recommendations and the transportation agencies’ progress in following them by Dec. 31 of each year, must be viewable to the public online as well as to the General Assembly.

Asked about Pritzker’s comments, CTA issued a lengthy statement highlighting the need for more state funding as its financial cliff looms and said it would continue working with other transit agencies on funding solutions. The agency has been a “good steward” of federal relief funding, the statement said, but “the concerns over a possible fiscal cliff are real.”

“Since 2015, the CTA has identified more than $1 billion in cost savings and non-farebox revenue growth, all without impacts to service or safety-sensitive positions,” the agency said. “Historically, and over the last 25 years, Illinois state capital funding has been intermittent, with funding available every other five-year period.”

CTA also highlighted efforts to draw back customers and address some of the challenges it has faced.

“The upward ridership trends, decreasing crime rates and improved service reliability that CTA is experiencing are evidence that our efforts have been productive,” the agency said. “We’ve also restored bus service to near-pre-COVID-19 levels and are adding rail service as we increase staffing levels to meet the growing need.”

Carter recently told the transit board he met with state legislators this month about the current state of the CTA and the looming financial troubles. He characterized the meetings, which included one with Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, as “very productive.”

“I’m very encouraged with the overall receptiveness of the legislature to recognize that there’s a problem here that CTA cannot solve by itself, and one in which we’re going to need some sort of broader holistic solution to what funding opportunities are,” he told agency board members.

Sarah Freishtat and Jake Sheridan reported from Chicago.