Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel may have picked an outsider to run Chicago Public Schools, but he stuck with City Hall insiders to ensure the city's trains and buses run on time.
New CTA President Forrest Claypool, who has known Emanuel for decades, will oversee day-to-day operations. Terry Peterson, who was instrumental in Emanuel's successful mayoral campaign, will continue as CTA board chairman.
Both will face major challenges centered on money: There's not enough of it year-to-year, or to upgrade an aging public transit system. And union contracts covering 9,000 CTA employees are set to expire in December.
"Forrest is no stranger to taking on daunting challenges," Emanuel said at a news conference, citing Claypool's tenure running the Chicago Park District for Mayor Richard Daley. "He shares my belief that (the CTA) is our most critical piece of infrastructure. Forrest has the experience to capitalize on the CTA's strengths and the creative mind to guide its future."
It's a step up for Claypool, a reform-minded former Democratic Cook County commissioner who was out of politics and government after losing an independent bid for Cook County assessor to Joseph Berrios in November. The CTA's budget is about $1.34 billion, more than three times the Park District budget. The city's rail and bus system has a $7 billion wish list. Parts of it are more than 100 years old.
Last year, nearly a fifth of the CTA's train and bus runs were eliminated. And the agency, like other public transportation systems across the nation, has been dipping into funds set aside for new equipment to cover day-to-day costs.
"The biggest challenge, I think, right off the bat is financial because the CTA has hundreds of millions of dollars in deficits and has been for years using capital dollars in one-time plugs, including a loan from the state to fill those gaps, and obviously that can't continue," Claypool told the Tribune.
Emanuel also named Gabe Klein as commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation. Klein served as transportation director under former Mayor Adrian Fenty in Washington.
Klein launched Washington's bike-sharing program and expanded its trolleylike bus lines. After the new Washington mayor took office, his transition team issued a report criticizing the transportation department, saying it skirted accountability and violated local laws in funding projects, according to a news report. Klein called the transition account politically motivated and inaccurate.
For the second day in a row, Emanuel did not allow his new appointee to answer reporters' questions. Emanuel said he wanted Klein to meet with aldermen first.
"I'm trying to be respectful of the City Council," Emanuel said. "My first act doesn't need to be disrespect."
Klein's appointment is subject to City Council approval.
Claypool and Peterson did get to speak. Emanuel has known Peterson, a former alderman, for more than a decade. The mayor-elect served on the board of the Chicago Housing Authority when Peterson was CEO.
"I asked him to stay on because I trust his leadership and stewardship of CTA at this juncture," Emanuel said. "I've seen how he works and how he leads and his commitment to public service."
A freeze on CTA fare increases is set to expire at the end of the year, along with the union contracts. Peterson noted he soon will have to start negotiating in earnest. He said service cuts will be a last resort.
"I don't want to stand here today and start negotiating back and forth," Peterson said. "We know that we can keep things going as they are until December. That's one of the challenges we are going to have in terms of sitting down."
Like Peterson, Claypool is familiar with City Hall's byways. In the late 1980s, Claypool became Daley's chief of staff, a position he held twice. Before that, Claypool was in the political consulting business with David Axelrod, who is now President Barack Obama's top re-election strategist.
Claypool's relationship with Emanuel goes back decades. The two worked on a central Illinois congressional campaign when both were in college. More recently, Claypool served on Emanuel's transportation transition committee.
Claypool does not have a transportation background, but Emanuel said his appointment is not political. Claypool did not have experience running parks before he took over the Park District either, Emanuel said.
"That is what public service is about," Emanuel said. "It's bringing innovation, creativity, a sense of commitment to what the mission is, and that's why I selected him."
Claypool said the "best indicator of how people are likely to do is what they've done in the past." At the Park District, Claypool cut costs and expanded recreation programs while taking political heat for slashing payroll and privatizing some operations.
Emanuel said his top transportation priorities will be to build 25 miles of new bike lanes annually and expand the CTA's Red Line. He wants to secure federal funding to rebuild deteriorating tracks south to 95th Street, extend the line to 130th Street and renovate and modernize lines north of Belmont Avenue.
In August 2009, the CTA's board voted to extend the Red Line by more than five miles. The $1.2 billion effort is meant to help disadvantaged neighborhoods by adding four additional stations as well as bus terminals and park-and-ride lots.
Emanuel acknowledged the project will require sustained lobbying on the federal and state levels. He plans to send his transportation team to meet with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Tribune reporter Jon Hilkevitch contributed.