Daley: Freebies could jeopardize funding

January 13, 2008 12:44:14 PM PST
Free fares for seniors and other passengers could mean a risky ride for mass transit in the Chicago area. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley says the freebies could jeopardize the funding plan hammered out in Springfield this past week.

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich came up with the free fare idea after the legislature approved the transit plan. So lawmakers will have to vote again next week on a funding plan that includes the governor's proposal. And that is a move Mayor Daley describes as very risky.

Mayor Daley says the governor's move endangers the entire funding deal. He questions whether it's legal. Even as some in Springfield say this is one more example of Blagojevich governing by decree rather than discussion.

Has "doomsday" been "diverted?" Mass transit riders won't know for several more days as result of the rabbit Governor Blagojevich pulled out of his hat at the eleventh hour. And that has Mayor Daley hopping mad.

"All of this puts everything up in the air for another week, which is really unfortunate," said Daley.

Allowing seniors to ride for free will cost between 20 and 30 million dollars a year, according to transit agencies. That's far more than the governor's office estimated just a few days ago. The CTA says a small fare increase may be necessary in 2009 to offset the free rides for seniors.

Mayor Daley said everyone supports helping seniors, but the governor hasn't done his homework or the legwork necessary to build consensus.

"This has not been discussed all year! That's the issue I have with it. Now fine, if you want to discuss it, do it last January, February, June or July. This couldn't all been discussed," said the mayor.

A spokesperson for the governor says the state's chief executive is just looking for a way to help seniors offset the Chicago-area sales tax increase which would fund mass transit, a tax increase he doesn't like.

"I felt at the end of the day I should keep my ace in the hole. And by the way this is not an ace of spades, it's an ace of hearts because this is a good hearted thing to give our seniors free rides on trains and buses," Blagojevich said Friday.

Transit riders have some of the same questions lawmakers do about who rides free -- and who pays for it?

"I heard they're a little low on funds, so I don't understand that part," said Miriam Heard, CTA rider.

"This can't be something, you're sleeping and one night woke up, 'Oh, yeah, I just came up with this.' We're not that dumb," said Dan Lias, CTA rider.

"That's fine with me, I think seniors can use the boost," said Sandy Lawrence, CTA rider.

A spokesperson for the governor says Blagojevich was worried that if he announced his "free rides for seniors" idea earlier in the process, legislators would make costly demands of their own.

So for now, the clock still ticks toward doomsday, January 20. Lawmakers will be back in Springfield this week to try to get a deal done.