First it was Rod Blagojevich who sent free rides soaring on the Chicago area's transit system, and now the lingering effects of the Great Recession are keeping the numbers high, experts say.
The former governor's gift of free rides to all Illinois senior citizens in 2008 was scaled back in 2011 to cover just low-income seniors.
But skyrocketing growth in free rides taken by low-income disabled individuals on the CTA, Metra and Pace — from about 1.5 million in 2008 to 29.6 million last year — has far outpaced regular ridership gains.
The state covers only a fraction of the cost for reduced-fare rides, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said. "Any significant jump in mandated rides puts pressure on the CTA budget,'' Steele said. "Those increased costs, and any reduction in funding, also diverts monies away from providing bus and rail service.''
That's one side of the story.
The other side is that the free-rides service is a lifesaver to the people who depend on it.
Jesus "Chuy" Campuzano says that if he could land a stable job, he would hand his free-rides card to the next person on the disability rolls.
"My free-rides card is like a godsend, because I am the type of person who likes to stay active,'' said Campuzano, 31, who was born with water on the brain. "I am able to go out to job fairs and disability expos and see what kinds of jobs they are offering.''
Campuzano, a lifelong Chicagoan, this month completed an internship and is volunteering at Access Living, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization working to remove barriers that people with disabilities encounter.
His activities include lobbying lawmakers in Springfield on behalf of the disabled and, by extension of those efforts, advocating for more funding to the transit agencies.
"When I go to Springfield I tell them my story. I tell them where I come from and I tell them why people with disabilities need health care, home services and transportation,'' Campuzano said.
It cost the CTA $62.3 million last year in uncollected fares to provide free rides to low-income disabled individuals and low-income seniors, according to the transit agency. The CTA provides the bulk of the government-mandated free rides in the area.
Metra and Pace estimated their lost revenue from free rides last year at $2.6 million and $2.7 million, respectively. The uncollected fares must be made up by cutting other expenses or passing along the costs to fare-paying riders, officials said.
The state provides no subsidy to the transit agencies for statutory free rides to low-income seniors and disabled individuals. Meanwhile, the state budget crisis has led to the General Assembly cutting the state reduced-fare reimbursement to half of what it was in 2007.
The free-rides program administered by the Regional Transportation Authority has 167,730 customers. The majority are low-income senior citizens and the remainder are low-income people with disabilities. All are qualified for RTA free-rides permits through the Illinois Department of Aging's Benefit Access Program, formerly known as the Circuit Breaker program.
The number of free rides given away on the CTA, Metra and Pace peaked at 53.6 million in 2010. That was two years after Blagojevich's mandated free rides for all senior citizens 65 and older, regardless of income, took effect in March 2008.
Blagojevich, who was governor from 2003 until early 2009 and since 2012 has been serving a 14-year prison term for corruption, cut a deal in 2008 in which he would not veto lawmakers' plan to raise the transit portion of the state sales tax if the General Assembly went along with his idea to offer free transit rides to all senior citizens living in the state.
The political compromise "didn't sit well with our community," said Tony Paulauski, executive director of The Arc of Illinois, which represents agencies that serve people with disabilities. "Our community said, 'We aren't looking for a handout.' We thought free rides should be means-tested."
Senior free rides with no income means test were phased out by September 2011, leading to a sharp decline in free-riding senior citizens. To receive the benefit, total income must be less than $27,610 for an individual or $36,635 for a couple.
But instead of the total number of free rides tailing off after the General Assembly ended the popular policy of free rides for all seniors, the transit agencies are now providing a record number of free rides to low-income disabled individuals.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.Copyright © 2015, RedEye