January 13, 2011
On February 14 Governor Quinn signed into law Public Act 096-1527 which effectively ended the Seniors Ride Free program instituted by former Governor Rod Blagojevich and restricts free ride eligibility only to low-income seniors. The Civic Federation commends the Governor and General Assembly for taking this action. As detailed in the blog post below, the Seniors Ride Free program has proven to be a major revenue drain for transit agencies across Illinois. As this article reports, transit operators may save between $37 to $90 million a year.
On January 10 the Illinois Senate voted 54-2 to pass Senate Bill 3778, which will end the Seniors Ride Free program. The House approved the bill on January 9, 2011. The legislation now goes to Governor Pat Quinn’s desk for signing.
The Seniors Ride Free program, an initiative of previous Governor Rod Blagojevich, took effect in March 2008. The program offers free rides to all senior citizens 65 and over, regardless of income or ability to pay, as well as active military personnel and disabled veterans. The program has cost public transit agencies around the state millions of dollars in lost revenue. The Chicago Transit Authority projects a total of 51 million free rides for seniors in FY2011, up from 49.8 million the previous fiscal year. In a University of Illinois at Chicago study commissioned by the Regional Transportation Authority, the annualized loss from the Seniors Ride Free program across the three service boards was projected to be between $26.1 million and $76.8 million for 2009. The same study projects that the senior population for the Chicago region will double between 2000 and 2030, thereby increasing the annual revenue losses for the program to range between $49.9 million and $147.6 million, assuming no increase in fares, by 2030.
The Civic Federation believes there is no sound public policy reason to provide free rides for affluent seniors who are able to pay and help defray the cost of public transit. Exempting such a large pool of individuals from paying their fair share of expenses simply shifts the cost onto other riders, many of whom are low-income workers. As discussed in this blog post, the Seniors Ride Free program has been particularly costly for the CTA and has made it difficult for the Authority to substantially raise its average fare, despite recent fare increases and attempts to reduce operating costs.
While SB3778 would end the Seniors Ride Free program, many low-income seniors would be able to continue riding public transit for free if they qualify for the State’s “circuit breaker” program, which also offers senior citizens and disabled persons property tax relief and pharmaceutical assistance. Senior citizens with higher incomes would still only pay reduced fares, based on a Federal Transit Administration requirement that transit systems that accept Federal funding must not charge senior citizens and handicapped individuals more than 50% of normal rates during non-peak times.
The Civic Federation urges Governor Quinn to sign SB3778 and end a program that will cost state transit agencies millions in future revenues. With the CTA and its ridership currently enduring significant cuts in service, there is no fiscally sound reason to exempt seniors who are able to afford fares from contributing to the system.