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Aldermen grill CTA President Dorval Carter on crime, service, staffing, and other issues

CTA president testifies on crime and service
CTA president testifies on crime and service 03:07

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A City Council hearing on delayed CTA service started nearly two hours late Thursday, but the president of the Chicago Transit Authority still faced the music after skipping the last City Council hearing on rider complaints altogether.

"It's important to me that each of you know you have my full commitment to continue to update you and our riders on the progress we make on our action plan," Carter said.  

CTA President Dorval Carter testified on improving transit service and safety concerns. As CBS 2's Tara Molina reported, aldermen didn't hold back in grilling Carter.

Carter was asked about a long list of issues - including the cleanliness of our transit system, major delays in service, and serious concerns about violence.

The hearing came hours after another act of violence on the CTA Red Line Thursday morning. One of our CBS 2 producers saw an attack firsthand and took cellphone video after a 25-year-old man was attacked and assaulted at the Sheridan stop.

Police told us the victim was hit in the head by a man with pens and a rock in his fist, and charges against a suspect are pending. The attack also delayed trains.

That attack was just one of hundreds of crimes reported on the CTA this year.

On the issue of crime, aldermen asked Carter about a number of subjects – including private security guards on whom the CTA is spending a huge chunk of money. Carter said the CTA is measuring the security guards' performance, and auditors watch them every day.

"They are engaged," Carter said. "They are additional eyes and ears."

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) asked Carter about the number of people living on the transit system. No plan to address this was specified.

Reilly also asked if Chicago has changed its policy on people smoking cigarettes or cannabis on trains – which is a common complaint. Carter said no – such behavior is still not allowed. But no plan to address such behavior was revealed either.

When asked if cameras are utilized to prevent such conduct, Carter said camera footage is reviewed later on trains.

An alderman said cameras don't replace boots on the ground – that is, police on the trains where illegal activity is happening. The alderman was "not impressed" with the security guards and said they are often looking at their phones. Carter said he understands need for visible police.

But Carter did not address concerns about disengaged private security guards, later only reiterating that the guards are meant to be "eyes and ears" to assist police. Carter said police themselves are also more visible, as per the instructions of Supt. David Brown.

"The superintendent has given a number of directives to make police more visible on our trains on CTA - both in the stations and on our trains," Carter said.

An alderman brought up police staffing on trains in other cities – saying Houston staffs 400 officers on its trains, while 3,500 NYPD officers patrol the New York City subway system. For Chicago to meet that staffing level relative to the size of its system, about 1,000 officers would need to be patrolling the CTA.

An alderman also asked if there will ever be armed security guards on CTA trains. Carter said he recognizes the benefit, but there are liability concerns.

He noted that armed guards are often off-duty police.

"I am not a crime expert. I am not a security guy," Carter said, adding that he wants to support the CPD.

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) suggested creating a pilot program to have "ambassadors" or someone in front of train stations and on trains as a positive, safe presence. This would not necessarily be like the security guards with dogs now patrolling.

"If it's safe outside the train station when you walk in, it leads to safety upstairs on the platform, and onto the train," Osterman said. "If it's chaos in front, it's chaos inside, it's chaos on the platform, it's chaos on the train."

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) asked Carter if he supports having the CTA bring back its own police force, which was disbanded more than 40 years ago under former Mayor Jane Byrne. 

"I don't feel that that's a viable, efficient solution to the problems that we're dealing with," Carter said.  "It would take me years to build a police department at CTA. That police department would be isolated from the Chicago Police Department – which not only has police officers, but also has numerous other resources that are helpful in investigating and dealing with crime on a much broader level. I believe the most efficient way to deal with the problem that we're facing right now is to focus on how we can better utilize the resources that we have available to us to address the problems that we have. That is going to be much faster than any ability on my part to basically create a police department at CTA." 

Carter also noted creating a CTA police force would be costly, and take money away from other priorities. 

"I don't think it makes much sense to me," Carter said.

Carter also said the CTA is looking at how to improve the CTA security camera system.

City Council members were also critical of an assortment of other issues – including CTA service right now, and how the CTA is responding to delayed service, and dirty trains and buses.

Focusing on buses, Carter said they are cleaned every day – and there is both a full cleaning and a "light cleaning." Carter said he is increasing the cleaning budget and janitors by 20 percent.

Also addressed were concerns about ghost trains and buses – that is, trains and buses that appear to be a certain number of minutes away based on scheduling, but never come.

Carter said the CTA is actively working on its systems to make scheduling and tracking of buses more accurate. Carter said Clever Devices is the vendor that provides the Bus Tracker system and is working on "technological improvements" right now.

When Ald. Reilly asked to give the CTA a letter grade, Carter refused.

Many aldermen asked Carter for better communication with City Council directly - explaining their offices are getting constant complaints related to transit.

"There is an expectation with you, as the president, to work closely with us so we can help you with the problems - because our constituents depend on CTA like their life depends on it," said Ald. Jeanette Taylor, (20th).

The CTA president said the agency is committed to being more transparent about the challenges they face - detailing continued staffing issues, a "mass resignation" early in the year, and continued impacts of COVID - with 15 t0 17 workers, on average, out every day. 

Carter said if he had his way, a mask mandate would return to CTA buses and trains.

Carter also said CTA currently has about 1,000 vacancies – 600 to 700 bus operators and 100 to 200 rail operators.

"I'm hiring. I have good paying jobs," Carter said. "I think the issue is, we are in a competitive for market for people to take on jobs like this. Someone who gets a commercial driver's license is very much in demand by private companies." 

Carter also told City Council members the CTA is making efforts to support current employees and to hire more - something he said needs to happen to address delayed trains and buses.

"The reliability of my day-to-day attendance also affects the reliability of my service," Carter said. "If I don't have an operator to put in a bus, that bus doesn't run. And that results in gaps and service and delays in service our customers experience on a daily basis."

The CTA president said part of agency's commitment to transparency is scorecard they're publishing monthly. According to a news release, the latest CTA Action Plan scorecard said 77.2 percent of rail service was delivered as scheduled – an increase from 71.8 percent in August. But service is still down across the board by comparison to prepandemic times.

The scorecard also said the Brown, Green, Orange, and Pink lines are all providing more than 90 percent of their scheduled weekday service – in what amount to a significant improvement from the previous schedule. But Blue Line service is seeing problems from workforce availability, slow zones on the Forest Park Branch along the Eisenhower Expressway, and an intermittent construction project on the weekends.

Instances of long wait gaps for trains have also dropped systemwide, the CTA said.

The news release did not address crime and security, but did say, "The scorecard will continue to evolve over time to reflect new initiatives introduced in the coming months." The CTA also noted that its October and November scorecards each had a section marked "security" that addressed the issue.

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