Usually ridership gains are a positive for transit agencies, but Regional Transportation Authority officials are scratching their heads over a spike in applications from low-income disabled individuals to ride free.
The jump coincides with state budget-cutting that eliminated staff members who verified whether people's claims were bona fide, RTA Chief of Staff Jordan Matyas said.
"We've seen a doubling (of free ride permits) we've never seen before," he noted at a Wednesday RTA meeting. "We're growing concerned about how this would affect budgets eventually."
The RTA administers reduced-fare or free passes for CTA, Metra and Pace passengers. All transit users age 65 and older qualify for reduced fares; in addition, low-income seniors and people with disabilities can ride without paying.
Eligibility for the free rides used to be checked by employees with the Illinois Department on Aging's Circuit Breaker financial aid program. But the state terminated the program in 2012 and the checks stopped early this year.
Now people applying for free-ride status do so online and there's limited scrutiny, Matyas said.
In February 2012, 263 people were approved for permits compared to 490 this February. The number increased even more in March with 740 permit approvals as opposed to 352 in March 2012.
"It's a big jump and we're concerned," Matyas said.
Illinois Department on Aging spokeswoman Kimberly Parker said in an email the agency continues to fulfill its statutory requirement to process benefit applications for Ride-Free Transit Cards for seniors and people with disabilities. "The verification process is now fully automated, unlike past years, and includes verification of age and income, as well as confirming certification of disability of applicants. We are confident in the manner in which seniors and persons with disabilities secure reduced rides on the RTA and other transit bodies," Parker said.