CTA President Dorval Carter blasts criticism

CTA President Dorval Carter gave a defiant response to the criticism of his leadership Thursday, blasting calls for him to be fired as racist and unfair.

At a City Council committee hearing, Carter highlighted his efforts to right the troubled transit system amid post-pandemic struggles, but focused first on the more personal attacks he faces. It was one of his first attempts to publicly address what he called “the elephant in the room” as political pressure against him has mounted for months.

“As an African American man, this city has a history of attacking and trying to bring down their African American leaders,” Carter said during 20-minutes of opening remarks. “What I would hope is that we would work together to find a way to support our agency and make our agency better.”

Carter’s emphatic defense comes a week after 29 of 50 aldermen signed on to a resolution calling for Mayor Brandon Johnson to fire him. Johnson has declined to discuss Carter’s future, and the resolution was sidelined by a legislative maneuver.

But during Thursday’s Transportation committee hearing, Carter said the criticism has made it hard for him and his employees to do their jobs.

“I have been turned into a caricature,” he said. “I have been turned into something that is less than a human being.”

The embattled appointed official walked aldermen through his childhood growing up on the South Side and his hopes for a more equitable Chicago. He described returning from a federal job to work at the CTA knowing the transit system and the city had experienced years of disinvestment. The harsh criticism of the CTA risks more disinvestment, he said, limiting the opportunities for the agency to advance.

Carter cited rising ridership from pandemic lows as evidence the agency was on the right path. But he acknowledged wanting to work to make the agency better, saying he would rather talk about the issues raised by riders or about funding than personal specifics.

“We’re spending a lot of time talking about my salary, talking about statistics,” he said. “Instead of, as one (public) commenter said, talking about the people.”

Carter has come under fire in recent months as complaints mounted about the transit agency’s ability to provide frequent, reliable and safe service. The agency, like others in the region and across the country, also faces a looming financial cliff when federal pandemic aid runs out, and transit agencies are looking to Springfield for solutions.

Among the challenges the CTA has faced are cutbacks in service as the organization struggled to hire and retain enough staff to operate buses and trains. The CTA slashed schedules on some train lines by as much as 25% to 30% compared with 2019 service levels, a 2023 Tribune analysis found, leaving riders with long wait times and crowded buses and trains.

Carter has previously promised to restore transit service to prepandemic levels by the end of the year, a vow he reiterated Thursday.

So far, the agency added bus service back on 29 of 127 routes under new schedules unveiled in March. On the rail side, schedules that took effect in April showed few service additions.

CTA spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski said at the time the agency was still working to add service as previously proposed, and planned to regularly roll out updated schedules through the summer as more rail operators are trained and available to head out on the tracks.

Chicago’s transit woes have already rippled across City Hall. Earlier this month, Johnson nominated politically connected West Side pastor Rev. Ira Acree for the Regional Transportation Authority board that oversees Pace, Metra and the CTA.

Acree drew sharp criticism for showing little knowledge about the region’s biggest transit struggles, including an impending $730 million funding shortfall, even as his nomination was advanced by a council committee. After the pushback, he withdrew his name as a candidate for the position last week.

But Carter has mounted a more determined defense. He met with members of the council’s Black Caucus Wednesday, several aldermen told the Tribune. During the call, he asked the caucus’s members to oppose the resolution calling for him to be fired. It is unclear whether the resolution’s author, Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, will push for it to go back up for a vote.

Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, questions CTA President Dorval Carter during a quarterly hearing on service at City Hall on May 30, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, questions CTA President Dorval Carter during a quarterly hearing on service at City Hall on May 30, 2024. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

After Carter’s opening speech Thursday, several aldermen who have called for him to be fired said he should have focused less on defending himself and more on the status of CTA’s service.

“I’m feeling a little disappointed in your approach,” Ald. Jessie Fuentes, 26th, said. “I was hoping that today we would have learned about the challenges and the solutions that maybe you are putting in place.”

Vasquez asked Carter a question about attrition, a nod to Carter’s statements that staffing challenges are at the core of the agency’s inability to run more trains and buses. Carter should focus more on those types of service issues and less on personal attacks, Vasquez said.

“I get criticism all the time. I have taken criticism for decades. I have been a public official my entire career,” Carter fired back. “What’s going on here goes way beyond that.”

“We’re just holding people accountable more than we did a decade ago, which is a good thing for government,” Vasquez responded.

But as Carter’s critics maintained their frustrations, several Black aldermen rallied behind him.  They praised his work and distanced themselves from the criticism he has faced.

Ald. Stephanie Coleman, 16th, chair of the council’s Black Caucus, said the pushback on Carter is “mean-spirited and lacks respect.” Other leaders of struggling city departments have not faced such critique, she said.

“I am not disappointed in your approach today,” she said. “I appreciate your honesty, your humility and your courage.”

She thanked Carter for his leadership and promised him the Black Caucus will not call for his resignation.

Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd, noted that most of the sign-ons to the resolution calling for Carter to be fired “did not come from my community.”

“I support you and your leadership,” she told Carter.

Ald. David Moore, 17th, said he does not get many constituent calls concerning CTA service and believes Carter is doing “an exceptional job.” He commended Carter’s ability to secure funding from the federal and state governments.

“I don’t think you get enough credit for getting funding for the Red Line extension project,” that will bring the Red Line south to 130th Street, he said. “For the ones that have concerns, I respect them, but I don’t think this is the time to get rid of someone who can help us address those concerns.”

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