Ill. lawmakers to vote on free senior rides

October 29, 2009 (CHICAGO) A vote is expected in both the Senate and the House on Friday.

Under the proposed deal, the transit agencies would not increase overall fares for two years.

Lawmakers debated the impact of the idea on Thursday night.

Scaling back the free rides would save the Regional Transit Authority about $36 million.

Seniors who lost their free rides would pay half price as they did before last year's change.

A senior who is single and making less than $22,000 a year would still pay nothing.

Some lawmakers say seniors deserve the break.

"They've been paying taxes forever. We give them one little perk, now we want to take it away at a time when we're bailing out Wall Street, bailing out big oil, bailing out the auto industry," said State Sen. Rickey Hendon, (D) assistant majority leader.

"There really is no such thing as a free ride for anyone to the extent any individual rides without paying, that cost is shifted on to the other riders," said State Sen. Christine Radogno, (R) Minority leader.

Word about the deal on fare hikes and free rides started to get out to commuters on Thursday night.

Annie and Ernie Finn are so upset about losing their free senior rides they went to a CTA budget hearing on Thursday night on the city's West Side.

"Finally, when we got the free ride, I said, oh, we are finally getting something back. And now they are going to take it away. I think that's disastrous," said Annie Finn.

It's disastrous because the couple takes CTA to doctor's appointments and trips to the Loop.

If the proposed bill passes, their free rides are over because they bring in more than $22,000 each. If you make less, you can still ride for free. The Finns are barely above the cut off.

"If you're going to have it $22,000, why shouldn't it be $25 or $30,000," said Ernie Finn.

In fact, a recent RTA survey says 31 percent of senior riders have incomes of more than $55,000 a year. And overall, the transit agencies are losing at least $36 million of revenue on the free rides for seniors and the disabled. Depending on the formula, that number can reach $112 million.

Given that, taxpayers have different opinions about all seniors riding for free.

"They earned it, right? They had to put in their time," said Sonja Parks.

"I don't agree with all seniors riding for free. I think that we're just redistributing the wealth," said John Mathew.

Now, CTA is angling for Springfield to make seniors pay if they earn more than $22,000 a year.

"We need for them to pass that bill in order for us to hold the line on fare increases," said CTA Chairman Terry Peterson.

If the bill passes, CTA plans to keep fares as is for two years. But cuts would still happen, like reduced services on trains and 41 bus routes. Nine express buses would also be axed.

But riders, though, are leery, given the doomsday budgets of the past.

The CTA wants union workers, who make up 90 percent of CTA's workforce, to agree to furlough days and unpaid vacation time. They also want to skip pay raises next year.

A vote on the CTA budget is scheduled for November 12.

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