Chicago ending free trolley service

By Mandy Treccia

The city of Chicago announced plans on Nov. 4 to end its free trolley service on Jan. 4, 2009 after funding was cut from the city’s 2009 budget.

Federal congestion relief grants—money provided to the city by the federal government to help ease traffic congestion—funded the service until 2004 when the city took over and contracted Chicago Trolley Co.

Brian Steele, spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Transportation, said the free trolley program costs the city $1.7 million annually.

“The service needs funding, and while it is a popular service, it is not an essential city service,” Steele said.

In 2007, ridership was 930,000, he said, and from January to September 2008, there have been 935,000 riders. Studies have shown only 12 percent of those riders are Chicagoans, while the other 88 percent were tourists and suburbanites.

Mary Griffin, who lives in Naperville, Ill., was very disappointed to learn the free trolleys were cut. She said she liked to take her two daughters to the city on weekends, and the trolleys were one of the easiest ways to get around.

“The trolley was great because we would get on at Union Station and take the trolley to the museums,” Griffin said. “It was nice not to have to worry about cab fare or finding the right bus.”

The free trolley service began shuttling Chicagoans and tourists in 2000 throughout various destinations from Union Station, Ogilvie Transportation Center and LaSalle Street Station to places like the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Museum Campus, Magnificent Mile and Navy Pier with several stops in between. Tickets and reservations were never needed and the trolleys became more progressively popular with tourists.

Tom Jameson was also upset about the trolley service ending. Jameson lives on the South Side and said he is part of the 12 percent of Chicagoans who used the free service from time to time to travel throughout the city.

“Even if it was just tourists on the trolleys, I still think it’s important,” Jameson said. “We need tourists in Chicago, and the free trolley was convenient. I don’t think the city is going to save that much money by getting rid of them.”

Steele said the main goal of the new budget is to preserve as many essential city services as possible, and at this time there are no plans for the city to offer a paid trolley service. Chicago Trolley Co. and Gray Line will continue to operate trolley service throughout the city as part of their city tour services for a fee starting at $25.99 per ticket.

The free trolley service between Navy Pier and Grand Avenue will not be affected by the service cuts. The Illinois-Grand Corridor Management Association operates the daily service to Navy Pier.

In addition to losing the free trolley service, the city has approved raising fares on buses and trains beginning in January. The CTA has proposed to increase card fares from $1.75 to $2.00 and cash fares from $2.00 to $2.25. The price of visitor passes would also increase from $12 to $15.