More free rides taking toll on transit agencies

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Chicago Tribune (IL) - Thursday, August 12, 2010
Author: Jon Hilkevitch, TRIBUNE REPORTER ; Tribune reporter Richard Wronski contributed to this report.

Standing at a bus stop at State and Lake streets on Wednesday, Nedra Gibson, 67, said all one needs to do is step aboard a CTA bus to see that transit ridership is way up this year among senior citizens and low-income people with disabilities who are eligible to travel for free.

"I happen to fall into both categories, and I'm proud to take the free rides because I earned them as a taxpayer," Gibson said.

While the 2-year-old free-rides program, pushed by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, may be an elixir of life for those who receive the benefit, those millions of free rides are giving the CTA, Metra and Pace a case of financial aches and pains.

The CTA provided 2.5 million more free rides during the first half of the year than over the same period last year, transit officials reported Wednesday.

The increase in ridership by non-fare-paying customers far exceeded projections that about 1 million more free rides would be taken in all of 2010.

Blagojevich insisted on the free-ride program for Chicago-area transit in exchange for his acceptance of a sales tax increase to bail out the region's mass transit systems in 2008.

The free rides cost the cash-strapped transit agencies about $68 million a year in lost revenue, according to the Regional Transportation Authority. Previously, seniors and most disabled riders paid reduced fares.

Metra provided 262,612 more free rides in the first half of this year compared with the same period last year, officials said. The largest part of the increase, 155,823 additional free rides on Metra trains, was attributed to low-income disabled individuals in the state Circuit Breaker program. Senior citizen free rides on Metra increased by 106,789 over the same period, to about 1.7 million rides.

Pace, the suburban bus system, served up 214,476 more free rides during the first half of 2010 compared with the same period last year, records show.

An ongoing study on the impact of the free rides, conducted by the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, projected an increase of 1 million additional free rides this year. The study also found that almost one-third of seniors who accept the free rides have annual incomes exceeding $55,000.

About 50 million free rides were provided by the CTA, Metra and Pace last year, according to the RTA.

Some 37.6 million free rides were taken on the CTA from January through June this year by senior citizens, disabled military veterans, low-income people covered by the state Circuit Breaker program and active military personnel in uniform, said Karen Walker, CTA chief financial officer. That total is 2.5 million more free rides than during the same period last year.

Senior free rides on CTA totaled 13.9 million, up 700,000 from last year; 9.5 million free rides were taken by disabled people covered under the Circuit Breaker program, up 1.9 million from a year ago. Free rides by members of the military were up by 200,000 this year, totaling 850,000 rides; and "other" accounted for 13.4 million free rides, down 300,000 from the first half of 2009, according to CTA records.

Some 6.7 million free rides were taken on CTA buses and trains in June alone -- 200,000 more free rides than in June 2009, Walker said.

The Illinois House earlier this year approved legislation that would impose a financial means test to limit the number of free rides offered to senior citizens. But the bill stalled in the General Assembly, and it is unlikely to be revived -- not at least until after the November election.

CTA President Richard Rodriguez said Wednesday that the increase in free rides will likely continue as more people take advantage of the perk.

"It is challenging when others are subsidizing those (free) rides as well, but it is something I am not at liberty to change," Rodriguez said.