I am writing this on my 73d birthday, and in just one more week, the gift to this Evanston senior from former Gov. Rod Blagojevich will be coming to an end.

No longer will I enjoy the convenience of hopping on and off CTA, Pace, and Metra trains and buses with abandon, as the free rides for all seniors, instituted in 2008 in a compromise to provide more state funds for public transit, will come to a screeching halt at midnight on Sept. 1.

Only low-income seniors on the state’s Circuit Breaker program will be eligible for free rides, even though the rest of us will still enjoy a reduced fare.

Mind you, I was like most fair-minded seniors who felt the free-ride program, absent any means-testing, was poor public policy. I could afford to pay for rides on public transportation and never minded loading 20 bucks from time to time on my CTA fare card to pay for an occasional bus or El ride.

But after savoring the freedom from standing in line for tickets at the Metra station or making a special trip to the fare card vending machine at the Central Street CTA stop, I have come to the conclusion that the elimination of the payment hassle was the greatest gift of all and that if this inconvenience were eliminated, the number of seniors using public transportation would rise dramatically.

More important to the sanity of our fellow citizens, our frequent rides on public transportation kept us off the roads and highways, thereby reducing a significant hindrance to safety and congestion.

Take, for example, a trip to Chicago’s Millennium Park for an evening concert. Typically, my wife and I would take the CTA’s Purple Line Express downtown in late afternoon for the concert. After the music ended, we would hop aboard one of the many buses going west on Madison Street to the Ogilvy Transportation Center, where we would board a Metra train for our return to Evanston.

As of Sept. 1, we will have to worry about whether we have a sufficient balance on our CTA fare card to pay for the ride downtown, and we will have to deal with a Metra ticket agent to secure a paper ticket to hand to the conductor on our ride home, unless we are prepared to pay a significant penalty to purchase our ticket on the train.

Next time, we may as well drive and pay the downtown parking fee.

Had our government officials thought this thing through, they could have come up with a less bureaucratic solution to the problem, but because they did not, I guess it’s up to me to tell them how they might do it.

All they need to do is to charge us an annual fee for that magic card we have been using. I would suggest they start with $100 a year and then increase it annually in $25 increments until they reach the point where the revenue begins to decrease, or as they say in the for-profit world, “as much as the market will bear.”

My guess is that such a system will bring in greater revenues than the per-ride fees and, more importantly, it will require no increase in costs for dealing with CTA and Pace farecards and Metra tickets.

A report from the University of Illinois at Chicago estimates that the free-ride program costs the RTA about $87 a year for each of the 435,000 seniors currently enrolled in the program. Even though some 44 percent would still qualify for free rides under the Circuit Breaker program, the annual fee schedule I have proposed should ultimately make up for the fare deficit.

Additionally, maintaining the present hassle-free system would still encourage more of us seniors to stay off the road.

Charles Bartling

A resident of Evanston since 1975, Chuck Bartling holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has extensive experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, radio...

Join the Conversation

10 Comments

  1. Dear Chaz

    Those of us with jobs who are paying your SS and Medicare expenses are burdened with occasionally standing in line to purchase tickets. Somehow we manage to make it through the day. If your scarce time is so valuable, you can always buy a 10 ride pass or two and that should get you through a year for Metra and CTA has a great website where you can get a card that takes about 3 minutes to set up that links payments to your credit card. In the time it took you to write your op-ed, you could have purchased unlimited rides on the CTA and enough rides to last a year on Metra.

    But you're right, in this time of tremendous budget cuts and government deficits, the number one concern of Metra and CTA should be making sure retirees aren't burdened with standing in line to ever purchase reduced fare tickets. You are entitled to that.

  2. Free Rides

    Great suggestions. You expressed my thoughts exactly! It was the convenience not the dollar savings.

    Too bad our incompetent legislators in Springfield couldn't think of your suggestion.

  3. Eliminate the reload hassle

    Eliminate the reload hassle by getting one of the cards you can have automatically reloaded when it goes down by a set amount.  Not sure how  the senior discount works with it but you also get a discount over the temporary cards.  Well worth the $5 (I think) it costs to obtain one and you can do it on-line.

    1. Automatically reloaded cards

      That's a great suggestion. I think you are referring to the CTA's Chicago Plus Card that automatically charges your credit card when the balance reaches a predetermined low point. Unfortunately, it is not applicable to the fares for seniors. Wish it were! Recent state legislation requires RTA to come up with a card that works on all three services–CTA, Pace, and Metra. Hopefully, this card will apply to the senior fares and have an automatic reload feature.

    2. Old/New 201 Route—-Volume

      Has there been a study of the old and new 201 bus route ?  I have not taken the new route [new portion] many times but I am around these spots and see very few people get on/off anywhere from Orrington/Church to Ridge/Central—including around NU even in bad weather..

      It amazed me that the new route cut-off the units at Emerson/Sherman and retirement facilities at Noyes west of Sherman.  Also cutting off City Hall has probably meant people are taking cars when they don't need to—at least I would hope a stop there reduced all the cars at City Hall.

      The new route would be great for NU students and employees—if they used it but with the NU shuttle, all the cars I see at NU and the few people I see getting on/off around NU, I think that idea failed.  Faster, yes for those that use it, fewer riders and less revenue for the CTA and I'm afraid more cars.

  4. I’m glad that we’ve been

    I'm glad that we've been funding rides for seniors who would be willing to drive and pay to park downtown in order to avoid the enormous hassle of automatic farecards.

  5. Free Rides for Seniors

    I wasn't able to afford the rides before the free passes and still won't be able to afford them now, with flat Social Security checks the last three years and rising prices everywhere else — so my daughter will drive up on Saturdays from Chicago to take me to the grocery stores and the doctor appointments, as she did before. 

    Seniors able to afford cars with handicap stickers — and $100 annual travel cards — are up in the income range of those who should not ever have applied for the free transit card, probably. 

    For those of us falling within a hundred or a thousand dollars or even $5,000 of the cutoff, it will be human tragedy once again in Evanston, notwithstanding the pain of standing in long lines that occurs to elderly feet and legs and backs. But the remarks of the writers below reflect upon a newly-heartless community.

    Once again we seniors will be competing with all the working-age folks in the grocery lines and the dentist's offices, and not riding the free public transportation to off-hour weekday shopping and appointments. Once again senior cars will be parked on Central St. before you get there.

    Once again there will be another car befouling Evanston air (my daughter's, up from Chicago) as we pass by the bus with all the empty seats that I could have been riding, but cannot now afford to.

    And, by the way, young ones: whose enormous property taxes do you believe are paying for your high-priced Evanston police and fire protection, your big downtown library and your four children attending free Evanston Public Schools and parks?????? 

    Such greed and selfishness were not apparent to the Evanstonians in my senior age group and their parents who helped to build this fine community and all those public facilities for you!

    1. Why Rant Against the “Young”

      I definitely fall into the classification of 'young' you describe in your rant, and I can hardly hold myself back as I point out that my tax bill for my property is almost exactly 1000 times higher the amount of my 91 year old neighbor who has had her taxes frozen since she was 65.  In addition to paying a lot more than the seniors with frozen taxes, we 'young' taxpayers help seniors stay in their homes by funding a program that employs people to clean seniors' homes, mow their lawns, clean their gutters, rake their leaves and numerous other items. 

      We too will someday be old, but the handouts seniors are enjoying today will be completely gutted before we are able to benefit from them.  You are only experiencing the first of a long list of cuts to come.  I won't have to face those cuts because there will be nothing left to cut when I retire in 20-30 years… that's if I can afford to retire at all.  So please, spare the rant directed at we "younguns."  It is completely unfair to point fingers and look for scapegoats where they do not exist.  If you want to be angry at someone, march on Wall Street where their raping and pillaging have decimated the coffers of every state in the country.  Call Barak and tell him to let the DOJ prosecute instead of covering for his Goldman Sachs buddies.  Ask for some meaningful reform, including seizing the revenue that was stolen by those renegade financial institutions and their army of employees.  Take that cash and create jobs by repairing our country's infrastructure.  When people are working, they are paying taxes, which will allow programs to stay afloat since they will be financed instead of flailing.

      1. I am in love with you

        YES!  Love your comments.  I am barely 40, working my butt off to pull my weight and live at roughly the standard my parents did and all I see is a bleaker and bleaker future for me and my kids (will I even be able to afford in state college tuition?  Will I be able to retire?  I have to assume no social security when I think about whether I am saving enough).  I have 5 digit student loans (though I have been paying on them for more than a decade).  Evanston schools (ESPECIALLY the middle schools) are in the crapper (while the D65 board spends time on stupid stuff) and while I make a good living, we are committed to one parent at home so I live in a mediocre part of Evanston and can't afford private school.  

        Evanston is a great place to live — the people, the lake, the downtown, most of the schools — but to keep this economically-diverse community healthy takes a lot of work.  

        But blaming each other (I did not vote to repeal the free rides for seniors) seems off base.  

        We need stimulus to create jobs which will get people working which will get them spending which will get the business functioning again.  JOBS!

Leave a comment
The goal of our comment policy is to make the comments section a vibrant yet civil space. Treat each other with respect — even the people you disagree with. Whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims.

Your email address will not be published.