Free Senior Fares
Position Paper October 30, 2009
Citizens Taking Action was a vocal advocate of free public transit for seniors, and would like to correct a number of misconceptions, as well as advance valid arguments for its retention.
One of the things to consider is that the rush hour riders have already paid for the system, and seniors riding in the middle of the day cost nothing. The system is designed to serve, first and foremost, rush hour riders. Many bus lines don't even run during the middle of the day, or on weekends when seniors are likely to use public transit to run errands and go to church.
Given the difference between peak and off-peak services, a valid argument is made that seniors have been cheated over the years. Also, a common complaint was that buses and trains sometimes had few riders, so when there is a way to correct this, everyone it seems suddenly is opposed to it. Anything that puts people on transit receives our support.
Free public transit already exists in numerous locations in some fashion. Transit fares are a direct, regressive tax on the poor and on those with fixed incomes. The collection of fares is an anachronism leftover from the days when transit systems were private concerns, prior to CTA being formed in 1947, and not municipal entities. At one time CTA had, if we recollect correctly, a dozen or so different categories of riders, and it obviously got too cumbersome to administer. Some of the state legislators not only wanted to exclude the "millionaires" they kept complaining about, but every senior who was not penniless.
Citizens Taking Action has been doing a survey of transit fares in 25 major metropolitan areas for a number of years. Chicago has always ranked as the first or second for having the highest transit fares in the country. So the fare, even at a reduced rate, hits some seniors hard.
The topic of how transit is funded is a detailed one, and a bit more than one needs to get into here. It's a little discouraging when 10X more is spent for highways, and transit goes begging. We have done research, and compiled a list of 25 different ways to fund a public service. The bottom line is that our metropolitan transit is defined as one that is "fare box dependent," unlike other municipalities around the country. The chief of RTA even maintains that since we pay "only" 50% of the actual cost, then transit fares, no matter at what level they are established, is a deal, and the riders should shut up.
The City of Chicago, you may or may not know, contributes next to nothing for public transit. Citizens Taking Actions took RTA to task at previous budget hearings regarding their estimated cost of free senior rides. It amounts to only a very, very small percentage of operating costs. Per the legislation which was passed, RTA was going to get $500 million more in funding, and seniors cost only $10 million of that amount. The figures that RTA is presenting can and should be challenged as to their accuracy.