Editorial: The CTA is broken. Agency President Dorval Carter Jr. must go.

Editorial: The CTA is broken. Agency President Dorval Carter Jr. must go.

On Thursday, Block Club Chicago published a sad and troubling story about the death last summer of 63-year-old CTA bus driver Antia Lyons. According to the news outlet, Lyons passed out from heart complications behind the wheel of her No. 112 bus while parked at the CTA bus terminal at 111th Street and Harding Avenue in Mount Greenwood. She later died.

Block Club’s story alleges that nobody at the CTA noticed Lyons’ unconscious state behind the wheel of her bus for almost an hour.

“CTA supervisors neglected to check on her even though the bus never moved and subsequently failed to arrive at more than 50 scheduled stops,” reporter Manny Ramos wrote. The CTA told Ramos it notified authorities as soon it was informed, but the story is backed up by bus tracking data and builds a case that the CTA’s own safety protocols, such as one driver always checking on another when in view, were not followed. To our eyes, the sourcing of the story also looks like an early salvo in a likely lawsuit against the agency, which is run by the embattled Dorval Carter Jr.

This is perhaps the most serious of a bevy of recent troubles at the transit agency, which clearly needs a major overhaul and change of leadership.

We’re explicitly calling for that today.

One of the challenges of running an agency that intersects so frequently with the lives of so many Chicagoans is that the scrutiny is intense, especially given the breadth of interest in the transportation sector. A group calling itself Commuters Take Action described the Block Club report as “not just alarming but downright infuriating” and faulted what it described as the board of directors’ “incompetence” and a longtime pattern of “emotionless, truth-obscuring statements” flowing from the CTA. The group also has been charging that service remains well below pre-pandemic levels and that the posted level of service often does not actually arrive in the station on a daily basis.

“Since 2020, CTA L Service has been cut by 22%,” the group posted Thursday on the social platform X. “Riders deserve frequent and reliable transit, with return to at least pre-2020 levels.”

On Tuesday, Ald. Matt Martin, 47th, a frequent CTA critic, posted: “Since 2019, the CTA has reduced Brown Line service by nearly 30%. This is unacceptable.” Martin also has made the point that while the CTA keeps saying it is struggling to hire staffers, peer transit systems in other big American cities do not seem to have the same problem.

So it comes as no surprise that calls are growing from disgruntled CTA users for Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who appoints three of the seven members of the CTA board, to replace them with people who will overhaul leadership and oust Carter as head of the agency.

If Pritzker does as he now surely should, he’ll be doing what he has done before: stepping in and taking charge where Mayor Brandon Johnson has failed to act decisively. On Friday, he made comments suggesting he has had enough of Carter.

It’s also worth noting that the CTA board pays its members $25,000 a year to attend monthly meetings, making it potentially useful as a favor bank, and attracting both those with and without transit experience, or even previously demonstrated interest.

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We weighed in some weeks ago about the frustrating situation with the Yellow Line, which the CTA left closed for some 50 days following a November collision with a snowplow car, even though the National Transportation Safety Board had quickly cleared it to reopen, albeit at a reduced speed. We’ve yet to hear an adequate explanation why. At the time, in contrast with the wise heads at the NTSB, Carter said nothing in public to restore riders’ shaken confidence. In fact, he’s known for how little he says, period.

Those who track statistics from the American Public Transportation Association and elsewhere have noted that the CTA’s post-pandemic recovery is lagging other agencies in terms of ridership numbers. In particular, they’ve made comparisons with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority system, which is on something of an unlikely tear, thanks partly to a new tunnel that has made commuting downtown in the famously car-choked city far easier. The LA system is now attracting ever-increasing numbers of so-called discretionary riders, pulling cars off the road for the benefit of all and garnering favorable headlines even as the clearly broken CTA seems to lurch from one dystopian scenario to another.

Even Chicago’s Metra system has gotten some kudos for recent innovations, including an expansion of weekend service on the popular BNSF line.

Carter certainly has expressed frustration on occasion with the lack of funding he feels he needs, and it’s true that some of the unfavorable comparisons suffered by the CTA have been made with agencies enjoying greater capital investment. The pandemic also upended the CTA, and that hardly was the agency’s fault. But arguing that the COVID-19 fallout continues is getting to be a thinner case when innovative change is clearly what’s needed. And let’s not forget the CTA likely soon will have to manage the Red Line expansion project, a massive endeavor that will extend that line to 130th Street and cost some $3.6 billion, with $1.9 billion of that coming from anticipated federal funding.

Is that project the best use of such dollars as distinct, say, from building an LA-like tunnel near downtown or adding faster service on existing lines, or even new lines in higher-density areas like the lakefront and Museum Campus? Those are complicated arguments involving fairness and equity, and they reflect the frustrating truth that capital projects are typically easier to fund than operational improvement.

We’ve supported the Red Line expansion, but we’re also now worried about the CTA’s ability to see it through while improving or even maintaining service elsewhere.

Like many in this city, we’d be more comfortable with some changes at the top.

When asked about Carter, Johnson has said that he is always evaluating the city’s leaders, but we wonder if he sees something of a kindred spirit in the transit agency’s embattled head and thus is inclined to defend him against all these critics lobbing stones from without. Maybe the mayor believes they just don’t have the full CTA picture.

Could be.

But the complaints are growing louder, more frequent. They’re coming from diverse Chicagoans, and oftentimes are backed with troubling data.

And then there’s this: Who could possibly believe it acceptable that Carter has said nothing in public to date about one of his own bus drivers left dying for nearly an hour at the wheel after collapsing?

Editor’s note: An earlier version misspelled the CTA bus driver’s name. The Tribune regrets the error.

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