Orley Herron, PhD, is a 76-year-old retired president of National Louis University and now a feature film producer and actor. He arrived in Chicago on Friday afternoon on a Metra train on which he rode without paying a dime under the state's 'free rides for seniors' mandate.
"I thought it was a wonderful gesture to do that for the seniors," said Herron.
But free riders like Herron are costing Metra roughly same amount the agency needs to generate with its planned fare increase. That's according to board chairman Carole Doris.
"The numbers seem to suggest that is what the projections are from what the expense to us is from providing the free rides," said Doris.
The program may have been impeached Governor Rod Blagojevich's most memorable executive act: no charge on state subsidized public transportation for anyone over age 65. On Thursday, the regional transit authority said the free rides cost a total of $37 million last year, money that's part of current and future budget deficits at Metra, the CTA and Pace.
"When you think of people living easily into their 90s and beyond, that's a long time to give free rides," said Arlene J. Mulder, Metra board member.
It rankles Herron that transit managers blame the perk for their budget problems.
"Don't give something out that becomes a really nice thing to have and then turn around and take it away. I don't think that's politically correct or personally correct," said Herron.
Because of expected high voter turnout among seniors, state lawmakers are not expected to go near the issue during an election year.
Meanwhile, 64-year-old Vic Ellis of Aurora can hardly wait to get his free pass after his next birthday. He could barely afford $11.35 for a roundtrip on Metra Friday to see a doctor at Cook County Hospital.
"Maybe you ought to have the pass now. Well, it would be a good idea but it ain't gonna work," said Ellis.
To make up for the cost of seniors riding free, Metra wants to raise the price of some fares.
Under the plan announced Friday, the price of a one-way ticket would go up about six percent, or thirty cents. The price of a weekend pass would jump from $5 to $7. The surcharges for riders who buy tickets onboard the trains would jump from $2 to $5.
A couple fares will stay the same, including monthly passes and the ten ride card.
If approved, the increases go into effect in February.