CHICAGO — Alderpeople rebuked the CTA president Tuesday for skipping a meeting last week where they planned to approve millions in additional tax revenue to the agency.
The City Council’s budget committee signed off on sending another $26.1 million of tax revenue to the CTA. It increases the agency’s share of the real estate transfer tax to $76 million, thanks to an increase in home sales in 2021.
The committee delayed their vote last week because no one from the CTA showed up to answer questions about how they would use the extra money. President Dorval Carter Jr. also did not attend Tuesday, with the CTA sending chief financial officer Jeremy Fine and vice president of legislative affairs Sam Smith to handle the fallout.
When the committee reconvened Tuesday, it approved the tax transfer unanimously, but not before blasting the agency for a lack of communication with City Council, threatening to seek an amendment to the tax arrangement, complain about safety on trains, buses and CTA stops and vow to haul the agency’s president back for future hearings.
“My question, I think is real simple, where is Mr. Carter?” Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), who was recently added to the team of Lightfoot committee chairs. “I’ve heard from multiple people at CTA above and below him, but haven’t heard from him and that’s a bit troubling,” Ervin said. “…everyone continues to have trouble with the agency, but if the gentleman feels it’s beneath him to come talk to us, then that’s the message that’s being conveyed.”
The full City Council will vote on the tax transfer at its Wednesday meeting.
Smith apologized on behalf of Carter Jr., saying it was “not his intent” to dismiss the concerns and he will “make himself available to all of you, at any time.”
Many of those who laid into CTA leadership Tuesday are top Council allies of Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
“The next time something comes up on the CTA, I better not get a call from (intergovernmental affairs), I better not get a call from anybody except the (president) of CTA, talking about how management is structured and the accountability that must be had from that body,” said Lightfoot’s vice floor leader, Ald. George Cardenas (12th).
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who chairs the Finance Committee, said City Council was frustrated by last week’s “no show.”
“City Council shouldn’t have to go to the (CTA) board meeting when constituents are calling, asking us not only where all the money is going, but what is being done,” he said. “The CTA needs to step up to the plate and have better communications with the elected officials in the city.”
Fine said the money, received annually, will be spent towards paying down pension obligation bond debt the agency is on the hook for to the tune of $150 million through 2040.
The state legislature created the tax arrangement in 2008 to shore up the agency’s pension plan, which includes 18,375 current and former employees, Fine said. State law allows the CTA to take $1.50 per $500 from Chicago property transfers. The city takes its own $3.75 per $500.
In addition to the debt service, CTA pays another $150 million into the plan for a total of $300 million, which represents “about 20 percent of our entire operating budget,” Fine said.
Alderpeople also criticized the agency for not responding quickly enough to safety concerns and for unexplained long-delays on train and bus lines.
“There are a lot of issues surrounding public transit these days, not the least of which is safety, and it seems that this would have been a great opportunity for president Carter to get up here and explain to us what the plan is to improve safety on on our transit system, especially our trains,” said Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd).
“It seems like almost every single day the Blue Line is delayed,” said. Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th). “I myself was on the platform last week and the train was delayed for a very long time, people were late to work, it was not providing the type of consistent service that Chicagoans need.”
Smith responded that he would “circle back” with Ramirez Rosa on whether the delays were because of mechanical issues or a lack of staffing.
“Like many other businesses out there, we do also have our manpower issues from time to time in terms of staffing, I’m not saying that this is the cause of what’s happening on the Blue Line recently, I just want to put that out there,” Smith said.
Repeating a claim from Lightfoot and CTA officials throughout the pandemic, Fine told the committee “we’ve run full service throughout the pandemic to ensure that essential workers and folks needing those essential services could access those throughout the pandemic.”
However, a Chicago Tribune analysis found the agency ran “far fewer of its scheduled train trips” on some lines during the pandemic than it did in the months prior.
Budget Committee chair, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said she’ll work with colleagues to haul CTA leadership back before City Council for a hearing to “address issues relating to the capital budget, your priorities, ridership, safety, how you’re coming out of this recovery…”