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Top mayoral aide defends $40 million congestion fee

Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno said nine out of 10 rides in Chicago neighborhoods are already shared and those passengers will get a discount.

Traffic moves through downtown Chicago in March 2018.
Additional ride-hailing fees would apply in Chicago’s congested downtown under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed 2020 city budget.
Better Government Association photo

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration pushed back hard on Tuesday against claims that imposing the nation’s highest ride-hailing fee to combat downtown congestion would pose an undue hardship on neighborhoods nowhere near downtown.

Uber has argued Lightfoot’s proposal amounts to a nearly 80% increase on the South and West sides and more than triples taxes and fees during peak hours downtown.

The ride-hailing giant, whose investors include former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s brother, has accused Lightfoot of reneging on her campaign promise to lighten the load on those who can least afford it.

Instead, the mayor’s plan wallops “underserved communities who do not contribute to congestion and lack reliable access to transportation,” Uber has said.

On Tuesday, Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno used City Council budget hearings to accuse Uber and Lyft of a “misinformation” campaign.

The fee hikes are expected to generate $40 million for the city’s deficit-laden 2020 budget. Escareno said the goal of the mayor’s plan is two-fold: “incentivize” more solo customers to choose shared rides to reduce the number of vehicles on the road; and ensure a discount for the majority of ride-hailing customers in Chicago.

“We know that, out of 10 rides in the communities like the South and West sides, nine of those rides are already shared. One of those 10 rides on average is actually riding downtown,” Escareno said.

“So, most communities — where the rides are already happening organically and they are shared — they will actually see a seven-cent decrease in current rides.”

A spokesman later acknowledged that Escareno “misspoke.”

She meant to say that nine out of 10 neighborhood ride-hailing customers go to other neighborhoods and that 50 percent of those rides are shared.

Pastors and community leaders are nevertheless urging the mayor to reconsider, citing the burden the congestion fee places on inner-city residents.

They noted that ride-hailing companies made 600,000 pick-ups in the West Side’s Austin community during the first six months of 2019, compared to just 5,000 pick-ups for taxis.

They further noted that half of all Uber drivers in Chicago live on the South and West sides.

“By increasing fees on ride share, but letting taxis off the hook, the mayor is essentially taking money from communities like Roseland to subsidize transportation in Lincoln Park,” said Tim Jones, founder of “Leave No Potential on the Table.”

“We shouldn’t tackle congestion by increasing fees on trips in the South and West sides.”

The Rev. William Hall of St. James Church argued that Lightfoot’s new fees “unfairly burden those who use one of the few reliable transportation options available” in South and West side neighborhoods.

“We can and must create a plan that doesn’t balance the budget on the backs of low-income communities.”

The Rev. Walter Turner of New Spiritual Life MBC said ride-hailing companies have been “invaluable” for neighborhoods long shunned by cabdrivers.

“I urge the mayor not to take us backwards. There are ways to reduce congestion and raise revenue that don’t target the South and West sides,” Turner said.

Chicago’s current charge is a 72-cent flat, fixed charge for each ride booked on Uber, Lyft and Via.

The mayor’s plan calls for:

• A new “downtown zone surcharge” that amounts to $1.75 per-trip for single rides and 60 cents-per-trip for shared rides. The surcharge would apply to rides taken between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. on weekdays, when congestion is most prevalent. That would raise the total fee for solo trips in the downtown zone from 72 cents per ride to $3.

The downtown zone would stretch from North Avenue to Roosevelt Road and from Lake Shore Drive on the east to a jagged western boundary that includes the North Branch Canal from North to Grand Avenue; Ashland Avenue from Grand to Van Buren Street; and Desplaines Street from Van Buren to Roosevelt.

• Increasing the city’s ground transportation tax to $1.13 on all solo ride-hailing trips citywide — an 88% hike.

• Reducing the ground transportation tax to 53 cents on shared ride-hailing trips citywide. The current ground transportation tax is 60 cents per trip citywide and $5 per trip to and from McCormick Place, Navy Pier and O’Hare and Midway airports.

The mayor plans to dedicate some of the $40 million raised to mass transit improvements. That includes investments in seven “Bus Priority Zones” on the South and West sides.