Slow start for ride-free program for disabled riders

  • By Amy Lee
  • Transit reporter
  • October 23, 2008 @ 3:00 PM

Only a fraction of disabled riders will board the city's buses and trains for free Friday.

Long processing delays at the Regional Transportation Authority have applicants waiting up to a month to receive permits required to ride the city’s transit system for free. RTA officials say the agency has mailed about 10,000 Circuit Permits, which are the passes required for disabled individuals to ride for free.

About 32,500 individuals applied for the Circuit Permit, according to Stephen Schlickman, executive director.

Processing takes at least four weeks, Schlickman says, and the RTA has added temporary staffers to handle the influx of applications.

“We’ve advised everyone there is a lag,” he says. The agency estimates at least 90,000 disabled individuals could be eligible to ride for free; those without a Circuit Permit still can take advantage of reduce fare ride programs.

In August, the Illinois Legislature passed the People with Disabilities Ride Free Program, which allows disabled individuals to apply for a Circuit Permit from the RTA to board and ride for free beginning Oct. 24. Only disabled individuals who are enrolled in the state’s Circuit Breaker Program are eligible to apply for the Circuit Permit.

The new law caught the RTA off guard, and despite added staff the agency is still behind on processing the Circuit Permits, Schlickman says.

“This was not something we anticipated, and we had very short notice to implement this program,” he said.

The RTA board of directors -- which oversees budgets for the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra  and suburban bus operators -- yesterday approved $18 million in funding for 43 projects, including the establishment of two new bus routes and several transit studies.

The grants will allow the CTA to establish a bus route along 83rd Street and one along 31st Street that will allow students to access to the newly-opened Little Village Lawndale High School. It is unclear when buses will actually roll on the new routes.

The “formal launch” of the new routes will happen “in the new year,” according to Leanne Redden, senior deputy executive director of planning at the RTA.

Transit advocates in Little Village continue to push CTA and RTA officials to extend the new 31st Street bus east to Lake Shore Drive and operate the bus on late night hours. The RTA approved a 31st Street bus that stops west of Lake Shore Drive at M.L. King Jr. Drive and the route will operate only to 8 p.m.

“When you tell people in the community that they’re going to have a 31st Street bus again, they get excited and say how badly it is needed,” says Michael Pitula, public transit community organizer for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

“When you tell them it won’t run at night or as far as Lake Shore Drive, they exclaim with disappointment. We hope they see this as riders see it: it’s nice, but not enough.”

The CTA has not made a final decision on 31st Street bus route – including its eastern endpoint or its hours of operation, according to Katelyn Thrall, CTA spokeswoman. The CTA in the past operated a bus along 31st Street but discontinued the service in 1997, citing low ridership.

“No one is against expanding the hours, but the feeling was this is new service and the broader concern is to establish ridership,” Redden says.

RTA officials yesterday also grappled with news that a series of 1990s-era sell off/lease back deals could have the CTA and Metra agencies on the hook for more than $100 million.

Deal cut during the 1990s allow the CTA and Metra to sell assets – such as train cars and facilities – to a private owner for an up-front payment. The transit agencies then leased the assets back from the private owners and the private owners got a tax break on the purchases.

The arrangement required a guarantee from another financial institution – in most cases, AIG, the beleaguered financial giant. AIG’s credit plunge means CTA and Metra could both on the hook for more than $100  million, Schlickman says.

Without help from the U.S. government, “all the benefit we received we’d have to give back,” Schlickman says.

Chicago joins New York, Los Angeles and at least 27 other transit agencies nationwide in this lease-back crisis. The agencies are working to have the U.S. Treasury to assume AIG’s former role as guarantor, Schlickman says.


Amy Lee is a Chicago-based journalist. She covers transit issues for the Daily News.