CHICAGO — Chicago Transit Authority riders have coped for years with unreliable, unsanitary and sometimes unsafe service. But the system’s leader operates with little accountability while his salary continues to swell by tens of thousands of dollars every six months, a Block Club Chicago investigation has found.
The Chicago Transit Board doesn’t conduct any kind of formal performance review of CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. and has rarely questioned the CTA’s leaders on the direction of the agency. The board has also allowed Carter to work for eight years without a written contract to oversee a system he reportedly rarely rides.
Rather, over the last two years, Carter has largely governed himself by launching initiatives that measure his own success without much direction from the board, which has almost always gone along with him despite an onslaught of rider complaints coming out of the pandemic.
Reporter Manny Ramos discusses Carter’s CTA tenure on the Block Club podcast:
Most other big city transit agencies have formal accountability measures in place. Out of the seven largest transit agencies in the country, only New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the CTA let their top leaders work without written contracts or formal reviews of their performance.
Yet Carter has received at least two salary raises yearly since 2018. In the eight years he’s led the CTA, his salary has climbed more than 60%, jumping from $230,000 to $376,065 as of July, according to CTA records.
His pay is higher than Mayor Brandon Johnson’s $216,210 annual salary and Department of Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee’s $283,200.
His salary is also more than other city sister agency leaders. Chicago Public Schools’ CEO Pedro Martinez makes just over $350,000, Chicago Housing Authority’s Tracey Scott makes $300,000 and Chicago Park District General Superintendent Rosa Escareño makes $230,000.
The CTA’s failure to hold its leadership accountable is a key reason public transportation service has been so shaky in recent years, transit advocates say, and it needs to be addressed no matter who heads the agency.
“If you look at the CTA, it has a board of directors and it is also a sister agency of Chicago,” said Audrey Wennink, senior director of transportation with the nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council. “I think it raises questions to who the CTA answers to: Is it the mayor? To the board? And really, who has the influence over it to make it better?”
Leadership In Limbo
When he took office in May, Mayor Brandon Johnson said he would take three months to evaluate the leaders of city agencies before making any changes.
That grace period has run out. But when asked specifically about Carter’s tenure last month, Johnson said he has still not made any decisions.
“As I’ve said before repeatedly, our team is fully assessing and evaluating all of our department heads as well as those who are leading our sister agencies,” Johnson said at a CTA event in September. “As that evaluation continues to take place, I’ll make the appropriate decision moving forward.”
Johnson didn’t say how his team is evaluating Carter’s leadership and a spokesperson for the mayor also declined to elaborate when asked in late September.
But Johnson did not schedule any meetings with Carter or other CTA leaders from the time he took office in May through the end of August, according to his daily calendars. Block Club acquired copies of the calendars through a public-records request.
Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), vice chair of the City Council’s Committee on Transportation and Public Way, has been an outspoken critic of Carter and has pushed for more accountability. Last year, when former Mayor Lori Lightfoot was still in office, Vasquez appeared at a council meeting dressed as a “ghost train” for Halloween, highlighting riders’ frustrations with trains and buses that show up late if at all.
At the time, Carter himself had ghosted the City Council for months. He finally heeded the call to appear for a hearing last November.
Vasquez thinks that should happen more often.
“We thought it made sense to have quarterly meetings with CTA where Carter or others could come and present before the council to establish a baseline and track progress,” Vasquez said. “We tried to get an ordinance going that would mandate CTA to appear before us but it was blocked by the previous mayor’s allies.”
That ordinance was advanced by the council’s transportation committee on Tuesday and is expected to be voted on by the full City Council on Wednesday. If enacted, it would require quarterly hearings “regarding the service levels, operations and security” of the CTA.
Inside The CTA Board Room
The CTA declined to make Carter or other top officials available for interviews. Instead, an agency spokesperson responded to Block Club’s reporting in written statements.
The spokesperson defended Carter’s salary, noting it “is lower than the salaries of several large U.S. transit agencies.” They include the agencies in Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, whose transit leaders all make more than $400,000 annually.
The CTA spokesperson also rejected claims that the agency’s leaders weren’t held accountable. The CTA has been more transparent with customers than before through its online dashboard of performance metrics, the spokesperson said.
As for the absence of a contract, the spokesperson said the CTA president’s duties are spelled out elsewhere, including board bylaws, a state transit law and a city ordinance governing the appointment of the CTA president. The spokesperson noted that no other recent CTA president has operated under a contract, “emphasizing the unique nature of the leadership structure within the transit authority.”
The spokesperson said Carter’s performance is evaluated monthly during board meetings, which act as performance reviews.
“The CTA Board meets routinely, once a month, and at every meeting President Carter’s performance and goals are assessed by members of the board, who review a variety of publicly presented performance metrics, departmental reports, and finance and budget matters, as well as other aspects of the agency,” the CTA spokesperson said.
The spokesperson added that each board member provides individual feedback on the performance of the CTA and Carter outside publicly held meetings.
Board members make $25,000 a year plus expenses and are required to attend a public meeting each month, according to transit records and the CTA’s website. The board chair makes $50,000 a year plus expenses. Four of the seven seats are appointed by the mayor and the governor appoints three.
“CTA’s Board of Directors has over 100 years of collective experience in board governance, law, finance, technology, community and economic development in the public and private sectors, which serve as an asset to the CTA,” the CTA spokesperson said. “They are respected and influential members of their communities and speak on behalf of Chicago’s diverse population to the importance of public transit.”
A 2015 board measure finalizing Carter’s hire says that board members should “periodically review the performance of the President.” The board can remove the CTA President “at will,” according to agency documents.
But a Block Club review of monthly board meetings from December 2021 to August 2023 showed a chummy relationship between Carter and the board. Instead of providing oversight and evaluation, board members regularly praised Carter for his work during a period when the system was struggling.
And the individual feedback described by the spokesperson was not part of the public meetings or otherwise documented.
When a Block Club reporter attempted to speak with members of the Chicago Transit Board after its September meeting, a CTA spokesperson intervened, saying the board members were not available to talk because of scheduling conflicts.
“The board pays close attention to CTA’s leadership and we carefully monitor the agency’s progress and continued challenges,” Lester Barclay, chairman of the transit board, said in a statement. “We also provide constructive feedback to President Carter and the leadership team in areas where we believe CTA needs to improve.”
A Board In Name Only
Last year, Carter was lambasted with complaints from customers and elected leaders while news publications produced dozens of reports about how the system was failing.
During that time, the CTA was experiencing levels of violence that it had not seen in more than a decade with riders on the Red Line in particular being attacked regularly.
According to an annual report from the Chicago Police Department, violent crimes were up 23 percent from 1,488 in 2021 to 1,827 in 2022. Last month, CTA touted its success in bringing violent crime down by 16 percent since the start of 2023 when compared to the same time last year.
Riders have also complained of dirty trains and buses, including instances of unsanitary conditions where human waste was splattered on walls, people were smoking openly, stations were littered with trash and tunnels reeked of urine.
More importantly, services were unreliable and the emergence of ghost buses — an issue with CTA’s tracker that showed inbound buses disappearing — became more frequent.
Much of the unreliability was caused by a deficit of bus and train operators that combined for about 900 vacancies.
In 2022, CTA had an average weekday ridership over 762,000, which was more than the nearly 602,000 riders in 2021, according to CTA’s annual reports. Still, that was a far cry from the 1.4 million riders that used the system daily in 2019 before the pandemic.
The board on a few occasions did question Carter on some of the agency’s failings.
“I think we would be remiss as a Board if we did not acknowledge and address the recent concerns raised regarding security,” Barclay said during an April 2022 board meeting. “President Carter, I think it would be really helpful to the Board and to our ridership to receive an update on summer security plans from the Chicago Police Department at our next meeting … to address some of the security concern issues that have been raised recently.”
Carter agreed, and a police commander of the public transportation sector would appear before the board during the May’s 2022 board meeting. In that meeting, the board questioned the police commander about police visibility on platforms and how they work with vulnerable populations.
In August 2022, Barclay praised Carter and his team for developing an impressive plan to “address some of the concerns raised by our ridership.”
Carter publicly revealed that plan the next day. The Meeting the Moment plan established five major issues the agency looked to improve on following the pandemic, including reliability and safety.
Over the following months, when riders called in to board meetings to express their frustration with CTA services, Carter pointed to the Meeting the Moment plan as a means of fixing issues.
Still, as the complaints kept coming every month, the board never pressed Carter to explain how the plan was addressing them.
During a December 2022 meeting — five months after the plan was released — a member of the transit activist group Commuters Take Action shared data showing the system was still marred by significant service delays. The board wouldn’t directly respond to this information.
“You have done a marvelous job, considering,” Rev. L. Bernard Jakes, vice chair of the board, said at the meeting after the data was presented. “It’s no secret to anyone that is still on this side of heaven that managing through a pandemic has just not been easy.”
Jakes did say he hoped transit riders and advocates would keep holding the board’s “feet to the fire.”
A month later, Jakes pushed Carter for more answers during a January 2023 meeting.
“I’ve heard everything that has been said, obviously we’ve been talking about it for months now, but I also have to listen with the ear of a consumer,” Jakes said. “When we have public comments, most of the public comments are one of two things: It’s about security [or] it’s about the unreliability of knowing within at least five-to-seven minutes when a train or bus will be there.”
“Listening as a consumer … I want to know what the fix is,” Jakes said.
Carter responded that ghost buses were caused by bus and train schedules not reflecting the actual staff available. He said recent “schedule optimization” efforts were already decreasing the number of ghost buses.
“The most important thing to remember here is that the easiest solution for me would’ve been to just cut services,” Carter said. “And the person who complained to us about how crowded the trains are today, those trains would be even more crowded.”
In other meetings, Carter repeatedly said that the service issues were caused by staffing shortages, since the CTA was struggling to hire enough operators to keep up with the number who were resigning, terminated or retiring.
But organizers say Carter has cut services and “schedule optimization” is just a euphemism for fewer buses and trains running.
“We have given countless public comments at CTA board meetings on behalf of Commuters Take Action,” Fabio Göttlicher, an organizer with the group, said in an email. “It seems like the public comment portion of the board meeting exists solely to satisfy a legal requirement. The board members always thank us for our comments, but that’s where it ends.”
Göttlicher said they always end their comments with an invitation to the board to engage in a conversation with their group but are always met with “blank stares.”
In addition, Göttlicher and others have suggested that the board should include transit experts — especially when board members rarely swiped into public transit, according to public records found by Streetsblog Chicago.
Out Of Touch
The leaders of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia, San Francisco’s Muni, the Bay Area Rapid Transit and the Los Angeles Metro all have written contracts, according to each agency’s spokesperson. They also conduct annual performance evaluations.
Similar accountability measures are also in place at other Chicago-area transit agency boards.
Kirk Dillard, the chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority, said the board “absolutely” tracks the performance of the agency’s executive director, Leanne Redden, who is under a written contract. The RTA is responsible for overseeing transit in the entire Chicago area.
“We want to delineate and make sure Leanne Redden knows what is expected of her and also what is expected of us,” Dillard said.
The board of the Metra commuter rail system doesn’t have a contract with its CEO, but it formally reviews the CEO’s performance every two years through a three-member working group of board members, said a Metra spokesperson.
Suburban Pace’s executive director also receives an annual performance review from the Pace Board of Directors and is on a contract.
Performance Difficult To Track
Kate Lowe, associate professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois Chicago, said CTA has made significant strides in improving reliability and reducing reports of violence, but serious concerns remain.
Some good accountability measures, Lowe said, include CTA’s interactive dashboard that showcases ridership, operator headcount, new system hires, bus intervals and other performance metrics — all part of Carter’s Meeting the Moment plan.
But Lowe said it is difficult to track Carter’s performance because it’s unclear who can hold him accountable — the board, the mayor or both.
“There needs to be some sort of clear accountability to workers and riders — especially to those who are on the system,” Lowe said. “We also know the board also has extremely low usage of the system and that raises questions.”
Block Club reported in July that CTA’s top leaders also rarely used public transit.
Vasquez said he recently had a meeting and a “frank conversation” with Carter.
“We talked about performance issues, hiring problems and the framing of ‘schedule optimization,’ when it can be read more as cuts and members of their team not riding the buses or trains,” Vasquez said.
Still, he left the meeting unsure if Carter should maintain his job. Vasquez said he will leave that up to the mayor, but stressed that to turn the agency around in 90 days was a tall order.
As for the first steps to keeping a CTA president accountable? Vasquez said it has to start with annual performance reviews.
“It is unacceptable that there isn’t any kind of annual performance evaluation or anything,” Vasquez said. “It is a way to measure where successes are happening and where there are opportunities to improve on.”
Reporter Rachel Hinton contributed to this report.
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