Getting Around

Free transit rides come with a price as numbers soar

The reason can be traced to two factors. More people are qualifying for federal Supplemental Security Income since the 2008 recession hit, officials said. Participation in SSI benefits is one of the triggers for receiving free transit rides in Illinois. About 80 percent of customers who receive free CTA rides receive SSI disability payments, officials said.

In addition, the state Department of Aging's switch from the Circuit Breaker program to the new Benefit Access Program, following state budget cuts, has made it easier for disabled individuals to apply and qualify for state benefits, including free rides.

The new application process is done using an automated online system that includes a more thorough verification of age, income and the disability of applicants, and the turnaround time leading to approval is much faster, officials said.

Advocates for the disabled say the free rides benefit is vital for individuals who otherwise would be homebound or forced to cut spending on food and other necessities.

"It's a very important program. The unemployment rate among people with disabilities is quite high, even before the recession,'' said Ray Campbell, chairman of Pace's Suburban ADA Advisory Committee.

Campbell is blind and uses public transit regularly.

"About 70 percent of blind or visually impaired people are unemployed. People need to get around, get to job interviews and things like that,'' said Campbell, 49, of Glen Ellyn, who works as a consultant evaluating websites and mobile apps for accessibility to the disabled population. He does not meet the free-rides program's income limits and pays his fares using a Ventra reduced-fare card, he said.

At the CTA, free rides for the disabled totaled 26.5 million in 2013, up from 1.4 million in 2008, records show. This year, disabled free rides are up 22 percent, compared with a year ago, CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said.

"CTA free rides for disabled customers grew at a rate of about 13 percent a year between 2009 and 2013, while overall ridership had an average annual growth rate of 0.4 percent," Chase said.

In Pace's case, the expense of providing free rides to disabled customers is comparatively minor. The loss of a fare-paying customer on a Pace bus comes out to much less than the $39-per-trip cost that Pace incurs for providing a paratransit ride in which the disabled customer pays $3 for the door-to-door service, said Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot.

Pace, in addition to its fixed-route operations, is responsible for providing paratransit and dial-a-ride services to disabled individuals who are not able to ride regular buses or trains on the CTA, Metra and Pace systems.

"We take perhaps a different point of view from our sister agencies on offering free rides to seniors and people with disabilities,'' Wilmot said. "We actively promote fixed-route service and the ride-free program to paratransit riders with the intent of getting them to consider fixed route for at least some of their trips.''

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

CHICAGO

More