Updated: June 20, 2013 4:06PM
The CTA is big news these days as transit officials begin the massive, and massively disruptive, Red Line overhaul on the South Side.
We’re told the short-term construction pain will beget long-term commuter gain in the form of faster, cleaner L rides. Let’s hope so.
But we’re also interested in another CTA-related news story the Better Government Association reported on with the Sun-Times’ “Watchdogs” a couple of weeks ago:
The transit agency’s decision — announced in a vague, somewhat misleading February press release — to replace its private security force at most of the L and subway stations with what CTA describes as more versatile, rider-friendly “customer-service” agents.
Instead of contracting for security — except for the handlers of the guard dogs — CTA is hiring and training its own cadre to assist commuters and provide security at the same time.
Critics of the strategic shift are afraid it might compromise public safety, and that concern was also reflected in our “Watchdog” report, which apparently upset CTA boss Forrest Claypool enough to send me a snarky email that reads, in part:
“Congratulation on your big expose. Really impressive that the BGA could use all its sophisticated investigative muscle to pull the curtain back on the scandalous replacement of unskilled, itinerant part-time workers with permanent customer assistants trained and invested in their jobs and communities.
. . . Probably a Pulitzer in the works.”
Whoa. This isn’t about exposes or prizes or muscle.
It’s about the Sun-Times and the BGA raising questions, on behalf of riders, about a publicly subsidized transit agency’s plan to radically revamp its approach to L station security.
That’s what watchdogs do.
But snark aside, Claypool’s missive also piqued our curiosity.
If the current guards are as “unskilled” and “itinerant” and indifferent as he implies, why was their private firm paid more than $70 million for security services in recent years?
Is Claypool saying the money was wasted and rider safety imperiled?
Not directly, but that’s the implication: It’s OK to replace guards with customer-service teams because the guards are basically shiftless security slugs.
But CTA’s own security contract called for “security guard services to protect customers, personnel and CTA facilities,” and the guards were officially certified by the state as security personnel, unlike the new customer service reps, who won’t be.
CTA claims the new cadre will have more “relevant” training, but time will tell.
We’re also wondering about the financial impact of the shift.
CTA’s announcement in February suggested savings of $2 million a year.
But transit officials told us recently the changes would be “revenue neutral,” and now we’re hearing the changeover may actually cost more money.
So what’s the real bottom line?
Look, we’re not naive — we’ve seen inattentive guards who are as likely to doze off as station agents.
And we know they’re not armed or well versed in CTA protocol.
So Claypool’s plan may turn out to be a good long-term solution.
But the safety and security of the riding public, in an era of heightened fears, is too important to entrust to transit officials without a serious public discussion.
Watchdogs initiate that discussion by raising questions that should be answered in the public arena, not in snarky emails.
Why? Because there’s so much riding on it.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097