Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Seniors' free rides begin March 17

Well, I had no idea they were going to start so soon. It's going to be almost less than two months from now that seniors with an RTA card will ride on Chicago area transit systems for free. From the Tribune...
The free ride begins March 17 for Chicago-area senior citizens.

That's the day the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace will open the doors for people 65 and older to ride buses and trains at no charge -- as long as they have a valid photo ID card issued by the Regional Transportation Authority, officials announced Monday.

The new program will be adapted from the RTA's current reduced-fare program for seniors, which allows residents of the six-county region to ride mass transit for about half-fare.

Seniors will be able to use this same ID card to ride for free, until sometime in the near future when a new "smart" card is developed, officials said.

Seniors who don't already have an RTA card can apply for them at more than 200 sites. Elderly tourists or seniors who don't live in the RTA coverage area -- even though they may commute from Kenosha or Kankakee, for example -- will not be eligible for the program. The RTA coverage area includes McHenry, Lake, Kane, Cook, DuPage and Will Counties.

While the rides are free, the expense will have to be borne by the transit agencies, which will have to absorb the estimated $30 million a year cost. On Monday, RTA Executive Director Steve Schlickman called that figure conservative and "manageable."

It remained unclear how many seniors will take advantage of the free rides. Census figures estimate that about 870,000 seniors live in the metropolitan area. The RTA has issued about 239,000 reduced-fare cards, and many eligible seniors do not take advantage of the program, officials said.

"We expect a surge in that number," Schlickman said.

The free rides come courtesy of the General Assembly and Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who pushed the controversial plan through Jan. 17 as part of legislation providing $530 million in new mass-transit funding.

Although the free rides begin March 17, it will be two weeks later, April 1, when a quarter percent sales-tax increase is levied in the six-county area giving the transit agencies the funding boost to head off "doomsday" service cuts and fare hikes.

Blagojevich added the free rides to the transit legislation, which was largely seen as a move to lessen the political fallout from breaking his vow to veto a sales-tax increase.

Seniors can register for reduced-fare cards at 165 N. Jefferson St. or at any of the RTA's service locations, which can be found by calling 312-836-7000 or by going to http://www.rtachicago.com/ . Processing will take three to four weeks, the RTA said.

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