UPDATED 09/01/11 11:06 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — Free public transportation is no longer available to all senior citizens in Illinois.
As CBS 2’s Mike Puccinelli reports, the 3-year-old program ended just after midnight Thursday. CTA bus riders Thursday morning will hear an announcement that seniors must use their new Circuit Ride Free passes for free rides if eligible based on income level, or pay along with their plastic magnetic-strip reduced fare cards if not.
WBBM Newsradio’s Bob Roberts reports all 455,000 of the old Seniors Ride Free smart cards were expected to be turned of at midnight Wednesday. The new cards were mailed out in August.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Bob Roberts reports
The reason the program was discontinued is that the freebies had left a $30 million hole in the budget of the Regional Transportation Authority.
Still, seniors who had come to depend on free rides are not happy.
“They should never, never cut the things that belong to the old people,” said Chicago Transit Authority rider Bernard Skagen. “You age; you live out the last days of your life.”
Noreen Traynor, 92, didn’t welcome the change either.
“It’s very difficult for me, but I’m going to do it,” she said.
Traynor gave her car away when she was 90, and has been enjoying the free rides ever since
“I am upset, but they were very good to me all last year,” she said. “I had a wonderful time.”
Others say now is not the right time to start charging our oldest citizens.
“I think it’s ridiculous, especially in the economy right now,” said Al Riebock of Chicago. “Help people out — especially the elderly. They’re the ones who need it the most.”
But others are simply resigned to what they see as a sign of the times.
“As long as I have to pay half fare, it’s all right,” said Ilio Silvestri of Chicago. “I guess the state needs money.”
WBBM Newsradio’s Mike Krauser talked also talked about the change with CTA Red Line riders emerging from the State Street subway.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Mike Krauser reports
“I feel that they should allow seniors who are on fixed incomes to ride free. That is a good thing,” one woman said. “Now, people who able to pay should be paying their fare.” She said she did not blame the RTA for dropping the free rides program, given that the agency needs the money.
“Actually, I think the poor seniors deserve a free ride. The people that can pay for it should pay for it,” a man said.
About 80,000 low income riders will still be able to commute for free. But those in better economic circumstances will be asked to pay a reduced fare. Some say they don’t mind having to pay their own way.
“My reaction is it’s about time,” said CTA rider Barbara Keck. “It was just one of the stupid things that we still only have to pay half fare, so I don’t mind it at all. It was sort of like a free gift.”
The transit agency expects to save tens of millions of dollars, which will be used to improve the RTA.
“We estimate $30 million annually, but not until the seniors start to ride – we need to know what their riding habits are – can we definitively say what the revenue generated will be,” said RTA director of communications Diane Palmer.
Prior to Seniors Ride Free, the RTA had issued only 175,000 half-fare cards to senior citizens, said RTA senior deputy executive director Grace Gallucci.
“The thought is that we hope many of the seniors that perhaps had not ridden in the past, and now have tried the system, will actually either maintain their ridership or perhaps increase it,” Gallucci said.
Qualifying incomes for the Circuit Ride Free program range from $27,000 to $45,000 – depending on the size of the household.
CTA spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis said with the reduced fares, seniors may ride at a cost of 85 cents, with two 15-cent transfers within two hours. Regular fare for the CTA is $2.25.
While the reduced fare cards are required, “if they show up to try to get on a bus, to try to get on a train this morning, no senior will be denied any service, so they get to ride today.”
The grace period will last a while, Lukidis said.
“We’ll be lenient. We’ll make sure everyone understands what they need to do. We don’t want to deny anybody service,” she said.
The RTA says any Illinois senior that had a free ride permit, but has not been sent either a reduced fare permit or a Circuit Ride Free card, should call the RTA customer service center at (312) 913-3110.