CHICAGO — The CTA is working to recruit hundreds of employees and boost safety and cleanliness on buses and trains, the agency’s head said Thursday as he faces intensifying scrutiny of the city’s mass transit system.
CTA President Dorval Carter spoke about the transit agency’s challenges at a long-awaited appearance at the City Council’s transportation committee Thursday. Carter skipped two previous appearances before City Council committees, which led to alderpeople pushing for a failed ordinance to delay funding for the agency if Carter didn’t routinely answer questions at City Hall.
Looking to address riders’ concerns about long wait times, Carter told the committee on Thursday the CTA has about 1,000 vacant positions, with such vacancies impacting service. He called the situation a “severe workforce shortage.”
The agency is looking to hire as many as 700 bus drivers and 200 train operators, Carter said. The hiring push comes as CTA is also looking to retain its employees, as the agency has also been hit by the “great resignation” of workers quitting following the pandemic, he said.
“We’re not recruiting as many employees as we need,” Carter said. “The result is gaps in service and delays in service.”
Carter has come under increased pressure and even demands he resign as riders and city officials complain of long wait times, deteriorating conditions, security issues and “ghosts”: buses and trains that show up late or not at all.
Aldermen slammed Carter for skipping a council hearing in September about complaints. He also bailed on a budget meeting for his agency in January.
The “ghost” bus and train phenomenon is largely due to the staffing shortage, Carter said.
CTA’s bus tracker system relies partially on the bus and train schedule, but that schedule is disrupted when workers quit or are out of work with illnesses such as COVID-19, Carter said. A bus or train that is scheduled to run may not be in service, but the tracker algorithm does not pick up that information until it is too late, resulting in a “ghost” bus or train that never comes, he said.
Upgrades are coming to the bus and train tracker system to crack down on the issue as Carter said he is working to “optimize the service” with the available workforce.
“We understand what we need to do to fix this,” Carter said. “We’re making the necessary changes to do that. This is going to take time.”
City Council leaders also grilled CTA officials about the cleanliness on buses and trains and the safety of the transit system.
CTA added 150 security guards to the transit system this year, but riders say their impact has been minimal. Groups such as Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change have also patrolled train platforms to combat crime.
“You have to take ownership of the safety issue,” Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) said. “If the CTA is not safe, people will not take it.”
Carter said his expertise is in mass transit and he is working with police to address violence on trains and buses.
Asked about the possibility of adding a dedicated police force to CTA — which the agency had in decades past — Carter said resources would be better poured into boosting its service and leaving crime issues to the police.
CTA is also working with other city agencies to provide resources to people experiencing homelessness who live and sleep on trains, Carter said.
Other alderpeople said they want to see cleaner buses and trains, something Carter said the agency is addressing.
“We’re very concerned about the cleanliness,” Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said. “I think you need to figure out a way to elevate that issue.”
CTA is increasing its cleaning budget by 20 percent and is adding more janitorial staff, Carter said.
The conversation over CTA’s performance comes as the agency is seeking funding for a massive extension of the south branch of the Red Line. City leaders said it is important to focus on fixing its existing service before looking at expansion.
“This is a system you all need to take seriously,” Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) said. “We depend on the CTA. The thought that you all dropped the ball is problematic.”
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