Getting Around: Beating the $5 CTA fare at O'Hare

It took a little legwork and a hotel bus ride to save $2.75 on Chicago's Blue Line

After experiencing a larger-than-usual chunk of change disappear from my Chicago Card, your Getting Around reporter wondered whether the new $5 cost to enter the Blue Line at O'Hare International Airport has given other CTA customers second thoughts about riding a slow train home from the airport.

And, an inquiring mind wants to know, is there any way to get around paying the $5 fare while still riding the Blue Line?

Travel patterns indicate there might, in fact, be a dip in ridership associated with the fare increase from $2.25 to $5 on July 1 — courtesy of the CTA without any corresponding service enhancement to offset the 122 percent fare hike — for Blue Line trips starting at O'Hare.

Ridership declines are typical, at least initially, every time fares go up. The trend played out the last three times the CTA increased the price of fares or passes since 2004, CTA officials said.

The $2.75 fare hike on Blue Line trips starting at O'Hare was introduced in two phases this year: first in mid-January for cash-paying riders who buy single-ride tickets, but not for Chicago Card and CTA pass customers; and on July 1 for all Blue Line riders boarding at O'Hare except for airline and airport employees as well as regular folks who have bought unlimited-ride passes. Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus customers who use the pay-as-you-go method, as I do, now fork over the $5 fare.

I have reported on the new $5 fare since it was announced in late 2012, of course, but it really hit home recently when, while traveling downtown from O'Hare, I saw the $5 flash on the turnstile screen. Ouch!

So I did some checking. The number of airline passengers at O'Hare in July was slightly higher this year, up 1 percent, than it was a year earlier, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.

But the number of people boarding the Blue Line at O'Hare was slightly lower last month, down 0.5 percent overall, compared with July 2012, according to CTA records. The average weekday drop was 1.8 percent and it declined an average of 3 percent on Saturdays, the records show.

What saved the overall July rate from plunging lower was that Blue Line passenger boardings at O'Hare on Sundays were 5.7 percent higher than on Sundays in July 2012, records indicate.

Interestingly, Blue Line passenger boardings shot up 11 percent in July at the CTA Rosemont station, which is one stop inbound from the O'Hare station and where the fare has remained at $2.25.

CTA spokesman Brian Steele said much of the increase at Rosemont appears to be connected to the Rivers Casino, which opened in Des Plaines in the summer of 2011 and operates a free shuttle bus service between the Rosemont Blue Line station and the casino on River Road.

Free shuttle? That gave Getting Around an idea. So while at O'Hare on Friday, instead of jumping on the Blue Line and paying $5, I rode the elevator to Level 1, where the Bus/Shuttle Center is located. It is where free hotel shuttle buses stop to pick up guests staying at nearby Rosemont hotels.

When the free shuttle bus serving the Hilton Rosemont/Chicago O'Hare pulled up to the curb, I climbed aboard. The driver was welcoming, even offering bottled water on this hot afternoon. I politely declined, although I had to restrain myself from pumping my fist as the bus headed out of the airport on I-190.

The bus trip to the Hilton Rosemont took 6 minutes. I got off the bus at the hotel and followed the sidewalk north two blocks to the CTA Rosemont station, a 5-minute walk, where I paid $2.25, instead of the $5 at O'Hare, and boarded a Blue Line train.

I retraced my steps back to the Bus/Shuttle Center at O'Hare and this time got on a free shuttle bus headed to the Hyatt Regency O'Hare in Rosemont. Again, the driver did not ask whether I was a hotel guest. If he had, I would have told the truth, and I also would have identified myself as a Tribune reporter conducting a test.

Admittedly, although my theory panned out, it did take some work and a little extra time to save $2.75 by circumventing the $5 Blue Line fare at O'Hare. I'm not recommending that readers of this column do what I did, and now that I gave away my little trick the hotels may be on notice to check who is riding their free buses.

But for a transit wonk like me, it sure was fun to beat the CTA, farely speaking.

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.

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