One by one, aldermen at a City Council Transportation Committee meeting earlier this month spoke with urgency as they reminded Chicago Transit Authority President Dorval Carter that his agency is at a crossroads.
Passengers no longer feel safe. Muggings, stabbings and even shootings are on the minds of customers as they board trains and buses. North Side Ald. Harry Osterman, 48th, said even with sky-high gas prices, weekday traffic on DuSable Lake Shore Drive is noticeably worse because, “I believe that’s a choice that people are making, and it’s because of safety on the Red Line. If safety improves, your ridership will improve.”
The aldermen also castigated Carter, who has been widely criticized for not meeting with City Council members, for the infuriating problem of “ghost” trains and buses showing on transit tracking apps as arriving at platforms and bus shelters at a certain time — and in reality never appearing.
“Our constituents depend on the CTA like their lives depended on it,” South Side Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th, told Carter. “Having a ghost bus missing makes me late for work … So there’s a domino effect when the CTA is not at its best.”
Aldermen also complained about trash littering the aisles and seats of buses and trains, and about the agency not doing enough to find social services help for homeless individuals living on trains.
In short, the CTA is a hot mess, which is why downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, wondered aloud how the agency could even think of moving forward with a project as expensive and daunting as the proposed $3.6 billion extension of the Red Line south to 130th Street on the city’s Far South Side. Federal funding would pay a chunk of the price tag, while the city envisions relying on tax increment financing to generate $950 million for the project.
Under a TIF, a project is partially or completely paid for using incremental tax dollars generated by rising property values on the surrounding land. In this case, the TIF district would include parts of the South Loop, Chinatown and the Near North Side along the Red Line, and would work much like the transit TIF created to pay for the CTA’s Red and Purple Line revamp.
“I do not envy you. I know you have many challenges that you’re contending with, and many of those were caused by things far outside of your control,” Reilly told Carter. “But I also struggle with the idea of making close to a billion-dollar investment in a system that’s not properly serving its customers today.”
Reilly and the other aldermen are right to call Carter on the carpet. For the city to work, the CTA has to work. The agency’s rail lines and bus routes constitute, as Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th, told Carter, the city’s circulatory system. Commutes, commerce and tourism all suffer when the CTA underperforms. The aldermen brought up immediate, urgent problems that Carter must address in the short term.
But the CTA and City Hall must think about the long term as well. And part of that conversation must include the Red Line extension.
South Siders who live in the mostly Black neighborhoods of Pullman, Riverdale, Roseland and Washington Heights know precisely what the extension means for them, and for the city. Getting to their jobs is often a time-consuming crosstown trek that requires one or more bus transfers. These neighborhoods are isolated from the rest of the city, and as a result, restaurants, retailers and other businesses don’t see them as new, viable markets. Lack of access to mass transit perpetuates the cycle of disinvestment.
It’s also a reason why equity remains an elusive goal in this city. In an op-ed we published earlier this month, Kate Lowe, an associate professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the project would create a 46% increase in the number of jobs that could be reached by people living near the extension, and a reduction of up to 30 minutes in commute time for passengers from what would be the station at 130th Street.
Aldermen at the Transportation Committee meeting correctly called on Carter to work with Chicago police Superintendent David Brown to brainstorm ways to solve the urgent problem of violent crime on CTA trains, buses and rail platforms. But there’s a bigger-picture aspect to the remedy that involves investment in South and West side neighborhoods under siege by both violent crime and disinvestment for decades. The Red Line extension would play a pivotal role in that investment.
Long-term answers to crime, Carter told aldermen, require “making economic investments in the communities that need it, and that’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about the Red Line extension — because it’s the kind of economic investment that’s going to start a turnaround in these communities in a transformative way.” In essence, the CTA crime problems mirror the city’s — and need just as much attention, energy and resource commitment to long-term solutions as to short-term fixes.
Carter’s to-do list is long and daunting. He has to guide one of the nation’s largest transit systems out of the harm wrought by the pandemic, and find ways to build ridership by improving CTA safety and reliability. He also has to do it knowing that federal COVID-19 relief money meant to compensate for lost fare revenue during the pandemic will disappear by 2025.
But just as crucial on Carter’s agenda is keeping the Red Line extension project on track. Aldermen were right to grill the CTA president about crime and ghost buses, but they should back him up when it comes to creating transit equity.