Packed house at CTA’s second Budget Hearing

Members of the public cheered as the emphatic Dr. Lora Chamberlain addressed President Forrest Claypool, Chairman Terry Peterson, and the rest of the CTA board at Monday night’s public budget hearing. Dr. Lora raised her arms over her head to emphasize her statement, “Bus Rapid Transit is a bad idea!” Most all of the room broke out into applause. The spokeswoman urged the board to rethink the projected reconstruction of Ashland and Western. Before she was ushered aside, Dr. Lora called on the board to build strong cooperation with unions. The CTA board secretary directed the next speaker to the stand, and this cycling of speakers continued until 8:00 PM.

Much to the CTA board secretary’s dismay, the audience was seldom quiet for the duration of the two-hour public hearing. Individuals who made comments to the CTA board included union officials; representatives from various NGOs and citizen activist groups throughout Chicago; leaders of community groups and neighboring towns; and many current or laid off CTA employees.

Many speakers began their three-minute speech by thanking the board for not increasing fares and cutting services. But, like any concession to the opposition, this statement was often followed by honest and open critiques of the CTA’s budget handling issues. As one CTA worker predicted, “Come June of next year, those fares will increase!”

Mike Pitula, Transit Justice Campaign organizer for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, gave a two-part address: first, he urged to board to reinstate the 31st Street bus route on the basis of civil rights, environmental justice, and climate change; and secondly, he demanded accountability from the board in providing records on the Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC) program. Pitula thanked the board members for agreeing to arrange a meeting with the vice president, but for the past month, office administrators had repeatedly evaded attempts at providing information concerning the allocation of $7 million of the total $11 million worth of JARC funds. The representative from LVEJO also opposed the Bus Rapid Transit plan, pledged his group’s support to the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), and identified with “the 99%” of Occupy Chicago.

For the duration of the evening, members of the public offered a torrent of suggestions to the CTA board. As one audience member stated, the CTA should turn to Mayor Emmanuel to use his connections to Washington to secure funding. Other appeals included adding three, county board-appointed members to the CTA board. One speaker urged the CTA to stop making “employee cuts in order to pay bondholders.”

Locals 241 and 308 of the Amalgamated Transit Union were heavily represented at the public hearing. The presidents of each union group addressed the CTA board while the union workers in the audience stood in solidarity. Javier Perez, trustee of the ATU Local 241 showed his group’s stance by alluding to John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son”. ATU Local 308 president, Robert Kelly, confronted the CTA board about their recent misdoings, demanding an apology for spreading misinformation in the media rather than contacting the ATU directly. “You borrowed on the backs of union workers,” Kelly stated, holding the board accountable for the actions of the CTA.

Javier Cortez, a current rail supervisor and twenty-six year employee of the CTA, decided to address the board only moments before the hearing was scheduled to end. “It’s not your fault, Mr. Claypool, “Cortez began his heartfelt speech, “I don’t blame you for what’s going on in CTA.”

“The first thing that needs to be corrected is the formula,” he continued. “And that needs to be addressed. CTA is my family, and I want to make it work. We need to sit down, like a family, at the table and fix the situation we’re in.”

But, as another CTA rail operator mentioned, CTA workers are often forced to choose between one family and the other. As Kenneth Sampson of Local 308 said, “We get time off for birthdays and anniversaries because we work most holidays. I need those days with my family because I don’t see them on Christmas.”

Perhaps the CTA board should heed the suggestions of its workforce, provided their twenty-plus years of experience working with the City, to make significant steps toward ameliorating the dismal state of CTA financial affairs. As one of four student interns who spent time researching CTA board members, I can testify to one comment issued by a discontented worker: “You [the CTA board] may be in the business of transportation, but you don’t know anything about public transportation.”

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