Advocacy group recommends CTA, Pace, Metra reduce fares for low-income riders

Active Transportation Alliance’s Fair Fares Chicagoland report aims to make public transportation more equitable.

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Active Transportation Alliance sets a series of recommendations for state agencies to make transit more equitable for low-income commuters.

Sun-Times File Photo

Working-class people living in the Chicago area are having trouble paying for public transportation and it’s hurting their ability to access work and health care, according to a report released Monday.

Aptly titled Fair Fares Chicagoland, the report lays out a series of policy recommendations to CTA, Pace, Metra and the Regional Transportation Authority on how it can make public transportation more equitable for those living at or below the federal poverty line.

Active Transportation Alliance surveyed nearly 700 people across the South and West Sides of Chicago and in southern Cook County. The nonprofit advocacy group works to improve walking, biking and public transit conditions in the Chicago area. Last year, the organization released letter grades for bus services in all of the city’s 50 wards.

Fair Fares Chicagoland recommends creating a 50% reduced transit fare program for residents in Cook, Lake, McHenry, DuPage, Will and Kane counties. The program would benefit those living at or below 200% of the federal poverty line.

The report estimates the program would cost the CTA, Pace and Metra a combined $175 million annually. Meanwhile, the annual savings could add up to $630 for low-income CTA riders; as much as $840 for low-income Pace riders; and $1,650 for low-income Metra riders.

“This report has some good ideas, but the challenge as always is finding a way to pay for them,” Metra spokeswoman Meg Thomas-Reile said in a statement.

Thomas-Reile said Metra is working on a pilot program that provides lower fares and transfers for riders on the Metra Electric and Rock Island lines with financial support from Cook County.

CTA, Pace and RTA did not return requests for comment.

Julia Gerasimenko, a co-author of the report, said she understands the concerns for funding and their goal is not to have services cut as a result of their policy suggestions.

Gerasimenko believes this program — along with the other recommendations outlined — could increase ridership.

“We see this almost as a stimulus package,” said Gerasimenko. “If we give access to transit, it gives people access to jobs, ability to seek proper health care and even fight segregation in the city.”

About 90% of those surveyed who reported an annual income of $25,000 or less said they would use the train or bus more often if the cost was lower. More than half said they were unable to afford a train or bus fare.

The report calls for an expansion of state subsidies to pay for the recommendations, restructuring of taxes, and asks state legislatures to reassess how ride fares are used for operating costs.

Lynda Lopez, a co-author of the report, said another way to make transit more equitable is through a practice known as “fare-capping,” which would essentially stop charging riders once a certain number of Ventra card swipes are made in a given time period.

Lopez said people from working-class communities who rely on public transit can’t afford to pay the $105 for a 30-day CTA pass.

“Let’s say you can’t pay that upfront, so you simply pay as you go,” Lopez said. “What ends up happening is people just pay so much more than that $105 over the 30-day period. It’s like they’re penalized for being poor.”

“It’s expensive being poor, and this is another example of that,” Gerasimenko added.

The report also calls for free fares for youth who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs and asks state legislators and RTA to streamline transfers between CTA, Pace and Metra. It also recommends decriminalizing fare evasion.

“People shouldn’t have to go to jail because they didn’t pay a fare,” Lopez said.

Manny Ramos is a corps member inReport for America,a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.

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