Illinois Seniors Ride Free transit program analysis
By Chrissy Mancini Nichols
Feb 18, 2011
Did You Know? Nationally, people age 65 and older take 645 million annual trips on public transit.
The new law is a reasonable policy that places income limits on who can ride on public transit for free, ensuring the state’s poorest seniors will continue to benefit from the program, and saving much needed revenue for cash-strapped public transit agencies. A one-person household with an annual income of $27,610 or less will still be eligible for the free fare, as will a two-person household earning less than $36,635, and households of three or more earning $45,657 or less. Almost 60 percent of seniors who currently ride free will continue to do so under the new law. Seniors who exceed the income limit for a free ride will still only pay half the fare, the same discount they received before the free rides program was implemented.
A more reasonable program
The Seniors Ride Free program was financially unsustainable from the start. The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) concluded it cost the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Metra, and PACE up to $76 million in 2009. From March 2008 through December 2009, seniors accounted for 58 million rides on the three systems. These numbers will only continue to grow, as the region’s senior population is expected to double by 2030.
Combined with rising gas prices and low retail sales, the Seniors Ride Free program jeopardized the financial health of an already financially strained public transit system in Northeastern Illinois. Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 revenues are running behind projections for all three transit service boards. For FY 2011, the CTA alone has a projected budget deficit of $196.2 million, and must transfer capital dollars to its operations budget to make up the balance. The transit agencies simply could not afford to support a program that gives away free rides regardless of ability to pay. All transit users would suffer if the agencies had to cut bus routes or limit service to make up the revenue gap.
There is no reasonable public policy argument for giving free rides to affluent seniors who can afford to pay. A study conducted by the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that more than a quarter of seniors who used the free rides program collected annual incomes of more than $55,000.
Illinois approach in line with other states
A survey by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) of 88 public transportation systems across the country found 84 percent of the systems offer reduced fares for seniors aged 65 and older.
Rapid growth in the number of older people in the United States during the coming decades will lead to greatly increased needs for expanded and enhanced public transportation services. Transit systems both large and small have implemented innovative programs that allow seniors to stay mobile as they age, but such efforts can be expensive. Funds to pay for them will have to come from new revenues or cuts to other programs.
An innovative program in Los Angeles
In 1993, the Los Angeles Dept. of Transportation spearheaded the consolidation of 20 social service transportation programs in the city to create a single efficient system called Cityride. Cityride is a transportation assistance program that provides seniors (age 65 and over) and individuals in the city of Los Angeles with a subsidized pass they can use to pay for transit services, including monthly bus rides, Cityride dial-a-rides, or taxis. The consolidation saves the city more than $7 million annually and provides services for more than 85,000 registered seniors. The program is funded through Proposition A, a half-percent tax included in the county’s sales tax.
Read more case studies from the APTA here.
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