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Mayor Johnson's pick for transit board advances despite not knowing of looming $730 million shortfall

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CHICAGO (CBS) -- A City Council Committee on Wednesday backed Mayor Brandon Johnson's appointment of a West Side pastor to the Regional Transportation Authority board, despite his admission he was not aware of a $730 million budget shortfall the Chicago area's public transit systems could face after federal COVID-19 relief funds dry up in 2025.

Rev. Ira Acree was questioned about his lack of expertise in public transit as the City Council Transportation Committee weighed his appointment on Wednesday.

All but two members of the committee voted in favor of his appointment, with Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) explaining in a post on X that, as state lawmakers look at possibly eliminating the RTA and merging the CTA, Metra, and Pace into a new single transit agency, board members should have expertise in public transportation operations and finances.

Acree also told the committee he hadn't spoken directly to Johnson about his appointment since he applied for the open seat on the RTA board.

"First of all, he's a busy guy … I don't call him. Since he's been the mayor, I probably haven't called him three times. You know, I just respect he's the leader of a busy city.  I have talked with somebody from his staff," he said.

When Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who also voted against Acree's appointment, questioned the pastor about what he thinks the RTA needs to do to address a looming $730 million shortfall once federal COVID-19 relief funds run out after 2025, Acree couldn't provide an answer.

"This is my first time hearing about a $735 million shortfall. So I wouldn't want to respond to that today without doing the research," he said.

As for a potential merger of the CTA, Metra, and Pace, Acree hedged, saying he believes there are convincing arguments on both sides of the debate.

"Consolidation could lead to stronger, more efficient transportation if implemented properly and responsibly, but conversely there is another argument. There is merit in maintaining the independence of each service board. As an incoming board member, I believe it's important to withhold judgment until equipped with the relevant data and information available to board members," he said.

He also avoided weighing in on the debate over whether the CTA should fire President Dorval Carter or otherwise change leadership at the mass transit agency over its continued struggles to provide frequent and reliable bus and train service since the pandemic.

"I think it would be unfair for me to grade him today. I would like to have the time to have access to all the data, and the information that the board has, and talk with employees, and even talk more with councilmen, but today I think it would be unfair to try to pass judgment on his job with limited information," he said.

Unlike mass transit systems in other major cities like New York, the CTA has yet to see ridership return to pre-pandemic levels.

In 2019, CTA saw a total of 455.7 million bus and train rides. In 2022, total ridership was only 243.5 million rides. Full data is not yet available for 2023, but through October of last year, ridership had gone up about 15%, still well behind 2019 levels.

Since the pandemic, riders have frequently complained about less frequent and reliable bus and train service. CTA officials have acknowledged struggles with hiring enough bus and train operators after a significant loss of personnel during the pandemic.

Carter has said the CTA expects to restore its reduced bus and train service to pre-pandemic levels later this year.

Acree said it was a "trick question" to ask why the CTA has struggled to return to pre-pandemic ridership and service levels, but said it's clear "CTA leadership must do a better job."

"They must do a better job, that's just the bottom line," he said.

Ald. Michele Harris (8th) was one of a handful of committee members who praised Acree's appointment, saying she's glad a West Side pastor with political connections will be joining the RTA board to give that community a voice in how mass transit operates.

"I'm excited, and I'm thrilled about having somebody that I know their name. I know who they are. I know their character. And so that means a lot to me, and when I go back into my community, that's going to mean a lot to them to have somebody that reflects the mirror," she said.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) called Acree a "friend and mentor" and said that he was not worried about the pastor's lack of experience in mass transit, noting many members of City Council had no experience in public safety, public education, public transportation, or other public policy matters before they were elected, but were able to learn on the job.

Acree's appointment now goes to the full City Council for a vote later this month.

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