Budget cuts leave RTA $37M short

Officials are warning of possible service cuts and fare increases to make up for a loss of more than $37 million in state subsidies.

The governor's office says you don't have a cash crunch and start talking fare hikes because $37 million in transit dollars is cut from an unbalanced state budget. But transit leaders asked, why did the governor, out of the blue last January, champion the idea of Seniors Ride Free and then cut $37 million that would help pay for it? Not unexpectedly, Seniors Ride Free has become hugely popular, and it also has a price tag.

Marie Glover signed up for a new Seniors Ride Free card. She said she loves it.

"It's very convenient for me. It means I can go places I couldn't go before," she said.

When Seniors Ride Free came into being last January, there was little doubt it would be popular. Now, just over six months later, seniors are signing up to ride free in large numbers - about 1,800 a week.

In the six-county Regional Transit Authority region, more than 400,000 seniors now ride mass transit for free. And while the transit agencies welcome the ridership, it does not come without cost.

When the governor announced last January that he'd sign new transit funding legislation only if seniors road free, there were early cost projections that have now gone up.

The Chicago Transit Authority, for instance, estimated that the senior free rides cost it more than $25 million. Add to that the governor's recent decision to veto another $35 million that the CTA receives yearly to offset the cost of reduced fares.

"It's in essence a double whammy, which is going to project an additional $60 million deficit that we'll have to address next year," said Ron Huberman, CTA president.

That will mean belt-tightening. It will not mean a fare increase - at least this year.

"But as we project '09, the most recent move by the governor puts us in a precarious situation, and it will be very difficult internally to close that gap," Huberman said.

The governor says his budget veto was necessary. It amounts to only a miniscule portion of the RTA's overall budget, and that should not, he says, lead to a fare hike. After averting doomsday transit scenarios, the RTA is loathing to talk fare hikes or service cuts.

"We are going to be patient and persistent and hopeful for a positive outcome," said Diane Palmer, RTA communications director.

The positive outcome is finding the money - either in a new capital program, which seems unlikely, or a legislative override of the governor's veto, which wouldn't happen until late fall at the earliest if it happens at all. Whatever cash crunch ultimately exists, the Seniors Ride Free program is here to stay.

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