Nearly half a million seniors accustomed to riding free on public transit will transition to an income-based system as of Sept. 1.
State lawmakers this year revised the Seniors Ride Free program after complaints it was costing Metra, Pace and the CTA millions in lost revenue while giving wealthy retirees an unneeded perk. The alterations still provide free rides for low-income people 65 and older.
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The Regional Transportation Authority is holding hearings this month to explain upcoming changes. Two suburban sessions drew small crowds and limited ire from seniors attending.
"It's fine," Jeri Lindrum of Schaumburg said after a meeting in Arlington Heights Tuesday. "I know we have to pay something, so it's fair."
Currently more than 440,000 seniors are registered with the free rides program.
In the next few months, the RTA will review its database of riders to determine who is eligible for free rides. A person age 65 and older earning $27,610 a year or less can ride without paying. So can a couple making $36,635 or less or a household of three or more people earning $45,657 or less.
But to receive a free ride card, a senior must be enrolled in the Illinois Department on Aging's Circuit Breaker program, which gives low-income retirees financial aid with property taxes and prescription drugs.
All other seniors qualify for reduced fares -- which comes to about half price. For example, a ride on Pace normally costs $1.75 but it's 85 cents with a reduced fare. A Metra trip from Zone A to Zone M costing $8.50 at regular price is $4.25 at the reduced level.
On Aug. 1, the RTA will mail out new reduced fare or free ride permits to everyone in the existing Seniors Ride Free program. The free ride passes will be renamed Circuit Ride Free permits.
Existing Seniors Ride Free cards will be deactivated Sept. 1.
Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich instituted the free rides program in 2008 in exchange for his signing legislation that raised sales taxes in the Chicago metropolitan region to help fund transit. The program's been controversial ever since -- popular with many seniors but criticized as unfair and politically inspired. A University of Illinois at Chicago study in 2010 found it could cost transit agencies up to $147.6 million by 2030.
Nick Koclanis of West Dundee used his free pass to ride the CTA and Metra.
The revisions seem reasonable, he said Tuesday. "I think those who don't qualify for free rides are very satisfied with paying our share. I'm grateful for the half fare."
At an RTA hearing Thursday in Wheaton, senior Daniel Patt of Lisle questioned the income level ceiling as too low. "It doesn't seem quite fair," he said.
Of the more than 440,000 people in the Seniors Ride Free program, about 26,000 are listed as in the Circuit Breaker database. More may be eligible.
People age 65 and older who aren't enrolled in the RTA program will need to register.