Illinois’ “Seniors Ride Free” program has never enjoyed a comfortable commute.
Spawned by disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the effort has long been viewed by critics—including those running the state’s transit systems—as an expensive and inequitable gift to elderly riders, many of whom can often afford to pay their own fares.
In fact, a recent University of Illinois study found that one-third of those who take advantage of the program earn more than $50,000 annually.
But now there’s something else to worry about: abuse of the “Seniors Ride Free” program.
A BGA investigation with Fox Chicago News documents widespread misuse and abuse of the senior free pass system in the Chicago area. The problem is costing the taxpayer-supported RTA, which oversees the CTA, Pace and Metra, untold millions of dollars.
And the difficulties don’t end at the border of the Chicago-area transit system. The “seniors ride free” program runs throughout Illinois.
So far, Gov. Pat Quinn and a majority of state lawmakers have not been willing to scrap free rides for seniors. They fear being zapped by the political consequences of reforming, or scuttling, the program.
But considering the results of the BGA/Fox investigation, the time is ripe for state lawmakers to take a long, hard look at this transit perk.
Among the options to ponder:
- ending the program immediately;
- instituting “means” testing to weed out higher income riders; or
- setting a sunset date for the program’s expiration.
Some lawmakers have proposed the free-ride plan become a key part of a larger state financial reform package that includes deep budget cuts and revenue increases, such as an income tax hike.
There’s no signal yet that lawmakers will deal with these dire financial issues when they get back under the Capitol Dome next month for another legislative session.
But at the very least, necessary legislative reform of the bumpy “Seniors Ride Free” program should be on their agenda.
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