Tribune photo illustration

Chicago Tribune photo illustration (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune / February 7, 2012)

The Regional Transportation Authority has temporarily extended the expiration dates on about 100,000 free-ride permits in response to delays by the state in processing a surge of new applications and renewal requests for financial assistance to disabled individuals and low-income senior citizens.

The action on the free-ride cards will ensure there is no interruption in access to buses and trains, transit officials said.

The three-month extension covers RTA free-ride permits that are set to expire June 30 and Sept. 30. It affects the majority of the RTA's 167,730 free-ride customers, according to the agency.

Permits expiring June 30 will now be usable on the CTA, Metra and Pace until Sept. 30, the RTA said. Permits expiring Sept. 30 will remain valid until Nov. 30. No action is necessary on the part of the permit-holder, officials said.

The Illinois Department of Aging's Benefit Access Program has been flooded with applications for free-ride eligibility and more time is needed to process the applications, RTA Acting Executive Director Leanne Redden said.

Some cases have also been identified in which participants in the free-rides program did not receive recertification by the state in the Benefit Access Program, formerly known as the Circuit Breaker program. It resulted in a holdup in the RTA issuing new free-ride permits, officials said.

And an isolated number of individuals have been mistakenly denied approval in the Benefit Access Program, officials said. In one case, an applicant's annual income was incorrectly processed as $700,000, instead of $7,000, resulting in the application being denied because the income exceeded program limits, officials said.

The RTA urged all low-income seniors and disabled individuals who are eligible for free rides to submit their applications to the Benefit Access Program immediately; processing may take up to six weeks.

The state only allows applications to be submitted online. Go to illinois.gov/aging and click on the Benefit Access link.

Help with the online process is available by calling the Illinois Department on Aging at 800-252-8966 to find a center where assistance is available in filling out the application. Chicago residents can visit any of the city's six regional senior centers between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. City residents may call 311 to find the closest regional senior center, officials said.

Meanwhile, seniors and people with disabilities who have not yet activated their new RTA Ventra reduced-fare, free-ride or ADA paratransit permits should do so before July 1, officials advised.

Starting July 1, magnetic stripe permits will no longer be accepted on buses and trains.

Customers who still have a balance on their magnetic stripe RTA reduced-fare and ADA paratransit permits are advised to transfer balances to their new Ventra permits.

Permits can be activated by calling 877-450-5328. Customers who have not received their new Ventra permits should contact RTA customer service at 312-913-3110, officials said.

jhilkevitch@tribune.com

Twitter @jhilkevitch