Illinois governor defends transit amendment

January 14, 2008 3:28:58 PM PST
Later this week, members of the general assembly will return to Springfield to vote on the change in the mass transit funding bill by Governor Blagojevich. That change allows seniors to ride public transportation for free anywhere in the state.

There were no votes to spare in last week's legislation bailing out public transpiration, which is why Republican State Senator Kirk Dillard's vote for the bill was a crucial one.

Adding free rides for seniors now makes the legislation more complicated for Dillard and other lawmakers.

Thousands of Dillard's constituents are Metra riders. They already face a fare increase.

When it comes to a transportation bailout, Metra riders face a 10 percent fare increase, no matter what lawmakers decide this week.

"They haven't gone up for quite a while. Everything else has gone up," said Joan Bahaveolos, Metra rider.

"Getting on the train at Western Springs, I pay like $5 already. It's pretty outrageous," said Pat Kearney, Metra rider.

"In the end, we're going to pay more anyway, no matter how it works out," said Alex Tines, Metra rider.

Metra announced its fare increase one day after Gov. Rod Blagojevich came up with his last-minute proposal to give free rides for all seniors. It's a move that is going to cost Metra $10 million a year.

While Metra says fares are going up no matter what, Dillard is convinced the 10 percent increase is in direct response to the governor's free ride plan.

"I would like to know whether or not the ticket price increase could have been averted, at all or entirely, if, in fact, senior citizens weren't included," said Dillard, (R), Naperville.

Some Metra riders do not believe free rides for seniors is the best idea.

"I'm a senior rider, too, so I think it's a good idea. But students and people with disabilities, they should receive the same benefits, too," said Sergio Corsi, Metra rider

.

"I think it's a little ridiculous. That's an awful lot of money that they're going to be giving out. There are a lot of seniors who are working like myself," said another rider.

As one of only three Republican senators that supported last week's bailout, Diillard said he is willing to consider the governor's plan, but only if it means giving free rides to seniors that really need it...

"There should be some means test. Multimillionaire stock brokers and LaSalle Street lawyers should not be riding for free on our public transportation system," said Dillard.

Dillard said he believes the free ride provision should also include a state residency requirement. Dillard said he is hopeful the bailout will pass before the January 20th doomsday deadline.

He says the way to handle the free ride idea is passing trailer legislation, where the details of Governor Blagojevich's proposal would be worked out later.

Earlier Monday, Governor Blagojevich fired back in a war of words with Mayor Daley over the plans to offer free rides to senior citizens.

"Mayor Daley shouldn't be so pessimistic. Maybe he needs to come to the House of Hope so he can have hope because I have high hopes for our lawmakers. They're going to go to Springfield. They're going to bail out the CTA. And they are going to help our seniors be able to have free public transportation, " the governor said to the congregation at House of Hope.

The governor says his last minute idea to provide free public transportation is about hope. Others say it is about votes. Governor Blagojevich pitched his plan to thousands of House of Hope congregants on the far South Side Sunday and responded directly to Mayor Daley's reaction to the timing of the governor's proposal.

"This has not been discussed all year. That's the issue I have with it. Now, fine, if you wanted to discuss it, do it last January, February or July," Mayor Daley said.

Three years in the making, lawmakers had finally passed a bailout for the CTA. It was a plan that included a sales tax increase, which is something the governor promised he would never do. So, to make up for it, Blagojevich came up with the idea, after the fact, to provide free rides for seniors.

"If he had come to me even one day before, there's a good chance we would have gotten it in the bill. But, now, there is time to think about it and not everyone agrees it's good public policy," said State Rep. Julie Hamos, chairman of the Mass Transportation Committee.

That is because a small fare increase may be necessary in the future to offset free rides for seniors. Some CTA riders are willing to foot the bill, but others are not.

"They want to give the seniors a discount, that's fine with me. That's amazing. They should be doing that. But that shouldn't come out of my pocket," said one rider.

"I don't mind paying a few pennies more for the seniors to be able to ride free. They are on a fixed income and they deserve it," said Suzanne Penn, also a CTA rider.

While lawmakers debate the policy, economists say statistics show that not all seniors needs a free ride.

" You probably look to see who needed the trips most, and that would probably be low-income workers and, perhaps, single moms," said Joseph DiJohn, a transportation expert.

State lawmakers will return to Springfield Wednesday and Thursday to, hopefully, come up with something before the January 20 doomsday deadline.

Hamos says that what she is willing to do is possibly alter Governor Blagojevich's proposal and maybe give free rides to seniors at a certain income level or giving free rides to seniors during off-peak hours.

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