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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

1st order of business: Dump the free rides

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Please. Give us a sign.

Not from some celestial body, but from way down below—the Illinois House and Senate. They need to do something right away that demonstrates they mean business when it comes to reform.

We heard senator after senator last week during Rod Blagojevich's impeachment trial claim they were on the side of the virtues and pledge allegiance to reform. We can't tolerate this anymore, they proclaimed. We must set Illinois on a new path. No longer can we be the butt of late-night comedians' jokes. We owe the people of Illinois better. Blah and blah. Words. It's all just words, until they step up to the plate and prove they mean it.

And they can start by immediately repealing free train and bus rides for seniors.

If anything has Blagojevich's name stamped all over it (other than the quickly removed tollway signs that bore his tag) it is the free-ride program. The legislators didn't want to do it. Said we couldn't afford it. Said they had no other choice. Said they were exhorted into doing it. That it was all Blagojevich's fault.

If you recall, a year ago the state was facing another one of those unfailing transit crises, and if the legislature didn't provide more state aid, riders would have to face huge fare increases and severe service cuts. Lawmakers narrowly approved a bailout package that included a sales tax increase. But Blagojevich vetoed the legislation, adding the free ride for seniors as a surprise gotcha. It hadn't been on the bargaining table. There was no public groundswell; it caught even CTA brass off guard. But the legislature (read: mostly Democrats) gave in and presto, we had free rides. Blagojevich's ridiculous, pompadour-crowned head got bigger, crammed full, as it was, of thoughts of his own invincibility. Some leading Democrats took it personally; they lost another joust with the goofball governor. Outfoxed again.

The sly political move boxed the lawmakers, because opposing it would have denied yet another entitlement to one of the country's most greedy and powerful interest groups: seniors. Not that they don't get enough breaks already, this one came out of the blue and was welcomed with open arms by the what-has-government-done-for-me-lately crowd. Holster your vitriol, seniors. I'm one of you, and, yes, I admit I've used this freebie, once. However, I happily can say that I've encountered many other seniors who were outraged by the giveaway, proving that we're not all consummate moochers.

Insert here the usual yowl from naive idealists that canceling the freebie would hurt the poor and that anyone who would propose such a thing is a mean good-for-nothing. No doubt, some folks can use a free ride, but just how many has never been convincingly established. But here's a suggestion: If you believe there's a "desperate need" for free rides for the impoverished elderly, figure out a way to means-test a free transit pass, or raise the money privately yourself. I'm sure you and your well-intentioned friends would do a great job, as motivated as you are by your goodness.

But don't give a free lunch to people who don't need one. It's like that lunatic $800 billion-plus "stimulus" package that President Barack Obama and Democrats are rushing through Congress. It's based on the logic that if you fling enough pies at the wall, a few will stick.

Returning to the time when seniors paid merely half fare would be a towering symbol of the legislature's commitment to reform. Imagine the guts it would take to reverse a newly established entitlement. It would be a national, if not international, precedent.

But it also would be more than symbolic. It's estimated that the free rides for seniors are costing other riders and taxpayers $26.5 million in lost revenue in 2009.

True, compared with the trillions that Washington is tossing around these days without a thought about the long-term consequences, it's not much. But $26.5 million is $26.5 million and because it is a "small" amount of money, it would be a good place to start.

This is but the first step that the legislature should take to prove it is committed to reform. They (and our new Gov. Pat Quinn) can dismantle some of the other money-grabs Blagojevich did on his own, the very things that caused the House and Senate to dump him.

See, it's not just a matter of the legislature's getting rid of Blagojevich. More important is getting rid of the damage he created.


Bill Wade said...

I am a senior and actually voted for Blago - every time he ran for office -- against my mom's advice. So maybe I'm crazy, but you are right on the legislature undoing Blago's damage and setting a direction for fiscal responsibility.

Mr. Byrne, you can help by posting a list of the wild spending targets. Let the public prioritize them for the legislature's guidance. /s/ Bill Wade - Chicago

Anonymous said...

What a great column. You must have read my mind. I, too, am a senior and was incensed at Blago pandering to us with free rides. I thought that the half-price transportation was a great perk. I know many others that felt the same way. Let's hope the legislature has the guts to get rid of this reminder of our idiot former gpovernor.

Anonymous said...

you forget some seniors actually retired and were well prepared to finance their retirement. Then the bankers wo gave loans to people who could not afford them - crashed the retirement accounts. After a 27% decline in my retirement account - and no way to pick it up - I deserve a reward - a free ride. I earned my retirement - including the entitlements you seem not to need and accuse seniors of being "the most greedy..........". Your blog was done to feather your career via publicity- shame on you.

Paul Foght said...

You could do your readers a service by taking a closer look at the question of fares for riding mass transit.

Illinois taxpayers support over 135,000 miles of highways and 7000 miles of streets. Taxpayers pay extra only to use the 286 miles of toll highways.

Illinois taxpayers support mass transportation systems in Chicagoland and 14 other Illinois metropolitan areas. Excluding only a select group of citizens, taxpayers pay extra to use any of these except the buses in Macomb.

Macomb is not alone in the world. Bus systems in major Australian cities are free to all. Massachusetts is working toward a zero fare program and there are experiments in other places.


Because pay-to-ride on mass urban transportation is a failed business model. That’s why the once privately-owned transit systems had to become publicly-owned.

Now the automobile-based personal transportation model has serious problems environmentally and economically. Free fares for all on mass transit is one solution to those problems.

Free fares can be expected to result in a major reduction is auto traffic and a significant increase in the use of transit. Travel use is very price-sensitive. When talking about a fare increase, the chairman of the CTA recently admitted it would slash ridership by 17,000,000. We can only guess how many rides would be added by going in the opposite direction and eliminating fares.

This is the math that you and the legislature should be doing.

Paul Foght
Yes, I ride for free

Diane Zee said...

As a long time CTA rider, I was outraged to be asked to pay for the senior's "free" rides. There is no such thing as a free ride. Someone is paying and it's the other CTA riders. Anonymous feels he deserves a reward for being retired. Well I would like a reward for getting up and going to work everyday but instead I'm asked to put more money in the fare box.
Great column!

Jean Blasco said...

Dear Mr. Byrne,

I thoroughly enjoyed and absolutely agreed with your Commentary today. The senior free ride system was a bad idea one year ago and it is a much worse idea today. A senior discount is fairer to all and should be implemented. But you only touched on half of the Chicago area transportation budget problems…

Metra’s Family Fares policy should be shelved too. The Metra policy allows up to 3 children ages 3-11 to travel free with one full paying adult. In today’s economy, there is no longer any justification for this.

1. Metra is in financial crisis right now…it needs every dime and dollar to keep its trains running. Metra doesn’t have the luxury to give away free rides. To continue a policy that contributes to its financial woes is irresponsible.
2. Metra gives what others don’t. There are no free passes for children on airlines, in theatres or at ballparks, so why a free train ride? If parents can afford tickets for their children’s entertainment, they can certainly afford the transportation to get them there.
3. Metra is creating an uncomfortable and unsafe travel experience. On major holidays, special events in Chicago and Cubs home games, certain trains heading into Chicago experience heavy family passenger load. Add to this the normal commuter load and you get overloaded trains; so overloaded in fact that it is a common occurrence that people must stand in the vestibules, in the aisles and sit on the stairs leading to the upper deck. Metra’s response to why they don’t add train cars when they know they will experience high ridership? They can’t afford to purchase more train cars!
4. Metra loses money on paying fares. On overcrowded trains, conductors cannot navigate through the crowded vestibules and aisles to collect fares. Tickets that have not been punched can be used again, so the rider gets two rides for the price of one. It’s possible that on a crowded train, everyone rides for free…except of course for the poor saps who purchase monthly tickets and have therefore already paid their fare, but not their fair share!

Metra doesn’t need to promote family ridership on their trains anymore. The high cost of gasoline, traffic congestion and the ridiculously expensive Chicago parking garage fees are encouragement enough!

If Metra only collected a $1 - $2 round trip fare for each child, its budget woes would disappear and the cost burden of ridership would be shared by everyone riding Metra.

Thank you for “listening”,

Jean Blasco

Anonymous said...

You are right on. I am a senior citizen and I thought it was a dumb idea when it first cmae to be and it is even dumber now. the only problem if State legislatures repeal is they will think it is lost money and use it for "Bridges to nowhere"!!!

Barbara Hooker said...

I agree that the free rides should be eliminated especially in such rough financial time for other people. I do not, however, like the way you call senior citizens one of the country's most GREEDY groups.