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Then-mayoral candidate and Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson greets Marissa Scher at the Racine CTA Blue Line stop on April 3, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

CHICAGO — This month, West Side pastor Ira J. Acree struggled to answer basic questions about the city's public transit system at a committee hearing following his nomination — by Mayor Brandon Johnson — to the board of the Regional Transportation Authority.

Acree, an infrequent CTA rider by his own admission, said he hadn't spoken directly with Johnson about the position because the mayor has “bigger fish to fry.”

The moment represented swelling frustrations among transit advocates, riders and alderpeople who have criticized the mayor and his inherited CTA president for struggling to rebuild the transit system after pandemic challenges.

On the campaign trail, Johnson, a Green Line rider, was vocal about improving public transit, riding the rail to meet voters and saying equitable access to reliable trains and buses was a civil rights issue.

What ShotSpotter And CTA's Dorval Carter Share - A Murky Future, And Trouble For Mayor Johnson

But a year into his tenure as mayor, pressure over the CTA is mounting for Johnson: State lawmakers are pushing to consolidate the agency on a regional level, effectively stripping it of mayoral control, as public transit nears a post-pandemic fiscal cliff in 2026.

“I've said this from the very beginning, that public transportation has to be reliable, predictable, accessible, affordable, and that's what I'm going to continue to work towards,” Johnson said in a one-year anniversary interview with Block Club on Saturday. “Ridership is up … hiring is up. You know, safety is improved, [there's] still work to be done.”

Johnson also campaigned on a bold vision for reorganizing roads to prioritize bikers and people who rely on the bus to get to work. That included a proclamation to “phase out” speed cameras if he could.

Here's how Johnson has fared on his transportation promises, one year into his term.

Mayoral candidate Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson speaks to the press at the Racine CTA Blue Line stop on April 3, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

‘Reimagined, Revived’ CTA

“To have a world-class city, we have to have a transportation system that works,” Johnson said in a public talk with Block Club while campaigning in March 2023. “I’m very much focused on making sure that my legacy as mayor of the city of Chicago is to see public transportation reimagined, revived and available in an equitable way.”

Block Club’s Madison Savedra and Quinn Myers and Chalkbeat Chicago’s Becky Vevea discuss Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first year on “On the Block” 7 p.m. Thursday on The U and 10 a.m. Saturday on CW26.


The agency had a “leadership problem,” Johnson said at the time, not directly naming embattled CTA President Dorval Carter but expressing concern over Carter skipping City Council hearings.

But as mayor, Johnson has been criticized for not making transit a priority, and everyday CTA riders say they’re dealing with more of the same: unsafe, unsanitary conditions and spotty service since the pandemic.

CTA President Dorval Carter speaks at City Hall during the first quarterly Council hearing with the transportation leader, on Feb. 27, 2024. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

In March, the CTA started restoring pre-pandemic service on some routes for the first time, and it has made progress in hiring back a full base of bus operators.

Still, train staffing and service levels have been largely stagnant, with transit advocates criticizing the CTA for being slower to rebound than transit agencies in other cities.

Johnson recently touted crime trending down on transit and said his administration would continue to grow CTA’s workforce.

But agency data shows many CTA bus and rail operators have looked to leave the job or transfer within the company, with some saying they’re done dealing with long hours, less favorable shifts, a demoralized and understaffed workforce, dangerous conditions and violent outbursts from riders.

Chicago Police respond to a call of a person with a knife on a CTA Blue Line train at the California stop in Logan Square on Nov. 29, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

A Block Club investigation in April showed a CTA bus operator died after going into cardiac arrest on a bus. She was unresponsive — her bus unmoving and no one helping her — for nearly an hour.

In November, 16 people were hurt, three critically, when a Yellow Line train crashed into a snow removal machine on the tracks after not stopping in time following a late command to do so. The federal transportation safety board is investigating the incident.

Some have called for Carter to resign — or be fired — in hopes it will lead to change within the system. A coalition of fed-up alderman plan to sign a symbolic resolution calling for Carter's ousting.

But Johnson has dodged questions about Carter’s fate despite promising a three-month evaluation of city department leaders upon taking office a year ago.

“Right now, he is still employed,” Johnson said last month when asked about Carter, after Gov. JB Pritzker joined the chorus of calls for “new leadership” at the CTA.

RElated

“It’s my job to determine the leadership of the CTA. That is my job,” Johnson said. “If people want to be mayor, they should run for it.”

Johnson again dodged questions about Carter in his latest interview with Block Club.

“It would be unprecedented for people to discuss about whether I should fire or hire someone,” Johnson said. “When I make that decision, the public will get a chance to weigh in on it.”

Johnson has made several public appearances with Carter, including at an event celebrating federal funding for a long-promised project to extend the Red Line farther South.

And Johnson has appointed two members to CTA’s board: Roberto Requejo, a founding director of transit advocacy group Elevated Chicago, and Michael Eaddy, a politically connected West Side pastor. Johnson’s recent nomination of Acree to the Regional Transportation Authority board, tasked with approving financial decisions for the CTA’s future, led to a petition signed by hundreds of frustrated CTA riders who want to see transit experts in those positions.

The nominations come at a time of heightened scrutiny over transit oversight in Chicago. Out of more than 50 appointments to the CTA board over the past 40 years, only three were transportation experts, with the majority reserved as plum positions for politically connected people, Block Club previously revealed.

The mayor controls the majority of CTA’s board seats and has de-facto authority over its leadership, unlike in other U.S. cities where transit has rebounded faster since the pandemic, said Yonah Freemark, a research director studying transit at D.C.-based think tank Urban Institute.

“In Chicago, we can lay the blame pretty plainly on one person,” Freemark said. “If there’s someone who can take responsibility for improving the CTA, it’s Brandon Johnson.”

Traffic whizzes along Foster Avenue adjacent to Austin Foster Park on the evening of Aug. 9, 2022, where new speed cameras will soon be installed. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

‘Phase Out’ Speed Cameras

At a televised debate during the mayoral run-off, candidates Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas put their differences aside to pledge they would “phase out” speed cameras.

“I’m for phasing them out if the Constitution allows us to,” Johnson said at the time. “And if we can’t, wherever a speed ticket has been accumulated or acquired, that ZIP code should get the revenue.”

In his recent interview with Block Club, Johnson said he didn't remember saying that.

“I don't believe I said that on the campaign trail,” Johnson said when asked about phasing out speed cameras. “I said that we have to look into it. I've offered up some dynamics about how revenue can be shared in terms of how it can be distributed.”

Automated speed cameras were introduced in Chicago in 2013 and have been found to disproportionately ticket Black and Latino drivers. The city's traffic camera system tickets drivers for going as little as 6 mph over the limit, a threshold that was lowered under then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who said it promoted pedestrian safety as Chicago traffic fatalities are high.

Lightfoot's move sparked a fight with some alderpeople, who said the $35 speeding tickets were most harmful to low-income drivers. Others support keeping and even adding more speed cameras, arguing they're vital to slowing traffic and protecting pedestrians and cyclists.

The city raised $11 million in fines in the first few months of lowering the limit, according to the Tribune.

In a mayoral race questionnaire compiled by WBEZ and the Sun-Times, Johnson wrote that ticketing drivers caught by camera going 6 mph over the speed limit was a “cash grab” and called for investing in more traffic-calming infrastructure like speed bumps and reduced speed limits in certain areas.

There are 161 active speed cameras in Chicago, according to data updated this month. The program started with four speed camera systems giving warnings to drivers near larger city parks.

In February, three speed cameras were installed blocks away from each other in Beverly, drawing mixed reviews from neighbors, according to CBS2.

City Council’s Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety met May 1 for a subject matter hearing about lowering the city's default speed limit from 30 to 25 mph, with Johnson’s hand-picked comptroller, Chasse Rehwinkel, telling the committee it would be more about “changing behavior than receiving revenue.”

The city’s latest contract renewal for speed cameras is set to expire June 26, according to public records.

Johnson told Block Club he'd “keep looking at” possibly ditching cameras in areas with an overabundance of them.

People walk and bike along Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square on Feb. 26, 2024. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

Prioritizing Bikes And Buses On Streets

Johnson said the city needed to create a “citywide bus lane network and bus rapid transit system that gives buses priority over other traffic” and install “well-designed, dedicated bike lanes,” according to his campaign website.

In a public talk with Block Club on the campaign trail, Johnson said creating more bus-only lanes is “something I believe we can do right away.” Johnson also tweeted his support for Bike Grid Now, an advocacy group pushing to slow down neighborhood streets and redesign them to prioritize bikes.

But Rony Islam, a lead organizer of Bike Grid Now, said Johnson has done a “pretty poor” job keeping his bold promises to rapidly build and improve bike and bus lanes.

“We’re seeing more of the status quo, things advancing project by project and advocates having to fight for piecemeal infrastructure,” Islam said. “I don't think there’s been much transformational change or a larger strategic plan by him for it systemwide.”

Johnson appointed Tom Carney, a career executive with the Chicago Department of Transportation, to its top role and has rolled over the department’s Complete Streets program, which looks to build more public transit, bike and traffic-calming infrastructure.

During Johnson’s tenure, the transportation department has upgraded bike lanes on stretches of Milwaukee Avenue, Augusta Boulevard and Grand Avenue in Bucktown and Ukrainian Village. Pedestrian and bike lane upgrades along Dickens Avenue in Lincoln Park were completed in December, and advocates celebrated new protected bike lanes on Belmont Avenue for safer passage under the Kennedy Expressway and over the north branch of the Chicago River, among other projects.

But many of those projects were already in motion prior to Johnson taking office, Islam said.

The $20 million Bus Priority Zone Program created red bus-only lanes on Western Avenue, near the CTA Blue Line. Credit: Hannah Alani / Ecoglobalsociety

The transportation department installed 55 miles of bikeways in 2023 with a goal of hitting 150 miles in the next couple of years. That includes new plans to build “a series of connected bike routes” on the Southwest Side, transportation department spokesperson Erica Schroeder said.

A Better Streets for Buses plan published in November by the CTA and the transportation department to create “bus priority projects” began construction on its first corridor this month: adding bus-only lanes on Chicago Avenue between Grand and Western Avenues to create a continuous bus lane on Chicago Avenue all the way to Ashland, Schroeder said.

“2023 was a record year for cycling projects in Chicago, with unprecedented growth in bikeway infrastructure and ridership,” Schroeder said. “This growth is an important part of Mayor Johnson’s goal of transforming Chicago’s streets into safe, equitable, inviting spaces for all — regardless of age, ability, or mode of transportation.”

In an op-ed for Crain’s Chicago, Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), chair of the Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety, criticized the transportation department for not including bus lanes in a plan to redesign the intersection at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street.

Mayoral candidate Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson greets a CTA worker at the Racine CTA Blue Line stop on April 3, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

What's Next

A $730 million fiscal cliff for Chicago's public transit agencies looms in 2026 as ridership and farebox revenue continue to lag and federal stimulus money runs dry.

The deficit could lead to a 20 percent cut in funding and a 40 percent cut in CTA service, which is already below pre-pandemic levels.

Additional funding for the CTA was not a priority ask for Johnson on a May 9 visit to the statehouse in Springfield, according to a source.

State lawmakers have introduced a bill that would consolidate the CTA, Metra and Pace into one new regional agency, tentatively called the Metropolitan Mobility Authority. The merger idea already has the backing of a key transit planning group and a government watchdog, who say it would streamline services, integrate tickets for riders and save hundreds of millions annually.

The Metropolitan Mobility Authority’s governing board would include 19 directors with voting power. Three would be appointed by the governor, five appointed by Chicago’s mayor and five by the Cook County Board president. Chief executives of DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties would each appoint one director.

In response, local transit leaders have said their agencies have long been chronically underfunded. At a board meeting last year, Carter said the merger proposal is a “red herring” when funding issues have been core to CTA's struggles.

Johnson has not weighed in on the consolidation effort, and he has yet to make a firm commitment about replacing or keeping Carter as the agency's future hangs in the balance.

“I haven't really looked at it,” Johnson said Saturday when asked about the merger proposal. “What I can say is that the people of Chicago elected me to address public education and public transportation, public health.”


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