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.