Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Quinn signs bill limiting seniors' free transit rides

Only low-income will get benefit; others will pay half-fare again

By Richard Wronski, Tribune reporters

It's the end of free rides for all senior citizens on Chicago-area buses and trains.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation Monday limiting free rides on the CTA, Metra and Pace to only low-income seniors, age 65 or older.

Legislators, transportation experts and others said the income limits are necessary for transit agencies to combat shrinking revenues while still providing free service to the neediest.

Of the 435,000 seniors currently enrolled in the free-rides program, about 44 percent are estimated to be low-income, according to the Regional Transportation Authority.

The free rides won't end immediately. The RTA said Monday that it will issue new photo identification cards for seniors who don't qualify as low-income so they can receive the reduced fare. By law, the RTA has six months to start the new program, but it will be sooner rather than later, the agency said.

All other seniors will have to pay half-fare for buses and trains once again, in accord with federal law. That's the way things were before former Gov. Rod Blagojevich hatched the free-rides program three years ago.

Unlike some other bill signings, Quinn approved the measure with little fanfare Monday, opting to pen the measure in private.

Quinn had previously said he would not scale back the program but changed his mind after the General Assembly passed the measure by overwhelming votes in January.

"This reform sets the standard we must meet for state programs by reducing costs while also ensuring transportation services for our most dependent seniors," Quinn said in a statement.

Quinn also signed a bill giving the state's executive inspector general authority to investigate the transit agencies for waste, fraud and corruption. The proposal is a response to the financial abuses involving Metra's late executive director, Phil Pagano.

The free rides cost the CTA, Metra and Pace between $38 million and $116 million last year, according to a report from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

One retiree, Michael Brennan, said Monday he was glad only low-income seniors will benefit.

"I like to see people get help who need it. That's better than giving everyone free rides just because they're of a certain age," said Brennan, of Chicago.

Brennan, 72, said he chose to pay full fare anyway. "The CTA needs the money to keep going," Brennan said. "It's the lifeblood of the city."

The free-rides program was initiated and hastily sent to the Legislature in 2008 by Blagojevich, who attached the measure to a bill increasing the sales tax to fund mass transit.

Under the new law, only seniors who qualify for the Illinois Department on Aging's Circuit Breaker program will be eligible for the free rides.

To qualify, a single senior would have to have an annual income of $27,610 or less. A household of two would have to have an annual income of less than $36,635. For households of three or more, the annual income would have to be $45,657 or less.

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