CHICAGO (CBS) — Five months after ending free rides for all senior citizens, the CTA is still providing free rides to thousands of civil service employees — a practice that dates back to 1945, when it was mainly a “courtesy” extended to police and firefighters.
Today, the list of government workers who get free rides on the CTA is long and costly for the transit agency.
CBS 2’s Dorothy Tucker reports how thousands of Chicagoans are riding buses and trains for free, costing the CTA $18 million a year.
A CBS 2 viewer who is one of Tucker’s Facebook friends tipped her to the story.
Carlos Escabedo wrote: “Why do the crossing guards and police also ride free on the buses and trains? The Mayor wants to save money, the CTA is broke, so they should pay fares for rides like everyone else.”
Escabedo rides the CTA nearly every day to a part time job or to look for a full-time job. He estimated he spends about $80 a month on rides. So when he sees others riding for free, it angers him.
“They get on the bus and they don’t pay a fare,” Escabedo said.
“They” include traffic aides in the big yellow jackets.
At O’Hare International Airport, more city workers walked through the handicapped gate to get onto the Blue Line without paying.
“I think it’s unfair. The CTA, they’re out of money. These people, I think, should pay. Why are they getting a free ride?” Escabedo complained.
The list of government employees who get free rides, according to CTA rules, includes police officers, firefighters, Cook County sheriff’s deputies, crossing guards, traffic aides, parking enforcement aides, military personnel and health department nurses. All must be in uniform to get a free ride. Some, like crossing guards, are restricted to certain hours.
Children under the age of 7 also get free rides on the CTA.
Last September, the state did away with a program that provided free public transit for all seniors in Illinois, because the free rides were costing the CTA, Metra and Pace a combined $30 million a year, when the transit agencies were already facing regular budget shortfalls. The move angered many seniors who had been relying on the free rides for three years until then. Now, only seniors who qualify for other certain low-income programs get free rides. Other seniors get reduced fares.
A crossing guard, who didn’t want to be identified, said those complaining about service workers getting free rides should give them more money, since they only work part-time and make about $21,000 a year.
But Parking Enforcement Aides can make as much as $58,000 a year, and they also get to ride for free.
“They’re making much more than I probably am making. We’re working, they’re working. They should pay,” said Escabedo.
Since thousands don’t pay, in 2010 the CTA lost more than $18 million in revenue. But the CTA emphasizes the majority of that figure is accounted for by children under 7.
Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a government watchdog group, said, “We can’t afford to have unjustified free rides.”
Msall pointed out that the CTA faces a $270 million deficit this year.
“If we are giving away $18 million in rides, free rides, that means the rest of the passengers on the CTA are paying more for those rides; or that the CTA doesn’t have $18 million to invest in its infrastructure to upgrade some of its platforms, to buy new buses or to basically repair the roadbed on the rail cars,” Msall said.
Msall said the CTA needs to consider changing the policy in light of its budget problems.
In a statement on Tuesday, the CTA said it “evaluates its programs and policies, with an eye toward reducing costs and increasing efficiency, while maintaining safe, reliable service.”