CHICAGO (WBBM) – The Regional Transportation Authority is getting increasingly anxious to change the “Seniors Ride Free” program at the CTA, Metra and Pace, to restrict free rides to low-income seniors and recoup millions of dollars in lost fares. But it’s only one of a number of financial issues facing the debt-ridden agency.

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There’s still room for gallows humor at the RTA. Last week, directors got a belly laugh when they told departing board member Judy Baar Topinka they had a gift to give her as she left to become Illinois comptroller–a stack of unpaid bills, with a place to sign for payment.

The normally talkative and opinionated Topinka couldn’t summon a reply, because she was laughing so hard.

But RTA officials insist that the problems are real and close to veering out of control.

The budgets of Chicago-area mass transit agencies in the coming year are balanced in large part because the RTA has borrowed an unprecedented $400 million in working cash notes — going to the limit under newly-enlarged bonding authority–and the diversion of more than $200 million from the region’s already under-funded mass transit capital program to pay operating bills.

By contrast, the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center recently concluded that free ride programs last year cost transit agencies somewhere between $37.7 and $116.2 million. It said the gap will widen as the senior citizen population grows, and calls the program in its present form unsustainable.

The study found that 60 percent of those rides would still be free, if the General Assembly restricted free rides to low- income seniors.

RTA staff asked the board to waive a requirement that it find the area’s mass transit system well-enough funded to maintain a state of good repair.
Despite that, acting RTA Executive Director Joe Costello said mass transit remains safe.

“Problems will persist without the ability to address state of good repair, but certainly safety is job one,” Costello said.

As her parting gesture, Topinka asked for a list of projects the RTA would fund to a state of good repair if it didn’t have to divert the capital funding.

RTA officials said that in recent years, more than $450 million had been diverted from the capital programs of the CTA, Metra and Pace to pay operating expenses.