Roll back free rides for seniors

By Editorial Board

Seniors in Illinois have enjoyed free rides on public transit since former Gov. Rod Blagojevich implemented the program in 2008, but those days may be numbered. The Illinois General Assembly recently passed a bill that would roll the program back so only those who qualify for the state’s Circuit Breaker program—low-income seniors and people with disabilities—would be eligible for the free-ride passes. All other seniors would continue to receive a 50 percent discount on all public transportation fares, and anybody currently with a free-ride pass would be able to continue using it until it expires.

Even though it might be a politically unpopular decision, Gov. Pat Quinn should sign the bill to end the Free Rides for Seniors Program. The program has been widely abused and taken advantage of, mostly by non-seniors. There were even reports of people riding for free with passes taken from seniors who had died.

Furthermore, the state isn’t spending its own funds by mandating free rides for seniors but instead spends the money of the Regional Transportation Authority. The RTA—which comprises Metra, Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority—is in deep financial trouble. In light of recent service cuts, layoffs and fare hikes, the RTA can’t afford to give free rides out to anybody who doesn’t absolutely need them. The new program would continue to take into consideration low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

While some seniors will undoubtedly be hurt by the change and a call to deprive them of free rides might seem cold-hearted, it is the most logical thing to do in this economy. Giving away free rides will do nothing to solve the RTA’s financial troubles.

On the other hand, State Representative Roger Eddy has estimated the RTA could save between $37 and $90 million a year under the new plan. That money could be spent by a cash-strapped CTA on programs that would better serve the entire population of Chicago, rather than just a small subset of it. The CTA should consider using the funds to reinstitute bus or train services that had to be cut for budgetary reasons, extend train and bus services to under-serviced areas of the city and improve or repair current train stations and bus stops.