Lightfoot shifts gears — to gas cards and Ventra credits — to provide relief for struggling commuters

Last week, the City Council’s Finance Committee abruptly canceled a hearing on Lightfoot’s plan to reduce the city’s gas tax. Now, the mayor is talking about offering gas cards to motorists and Ventra card credits to CTA riders.

SHARE Lightfoot shifts gears — to gas cards and Ventra credits — to provide relief for struggling commuters
Mayor Lori Lightfoot visited a city vehicle maintenance facility on Wednesday, March 30, 2022.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot visited a city vehicle maintenance facility on Wednesday.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Instead of forfeiting $18 million in revenue by offering a temporary reprieve from her own gas tax hike, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is exploring the possibility of offering gas cards to beleaguered motorists and Ventra credits to mass transit riders.

Last week, the City Council’s Finance Committee abruptly canceled a hearing on Lightfoot’s plan to roll back the 3-cents-a-gallon increase in the city’s gas tax that was included in her 2021 “pandemic budget.”

That gas tax, now 8 cents a- gallon, generates $64.9 million a year for snow removal, street paving, bridge maintenance and related personnel costs.

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the Transportation Committee, said he understood the mayor’s motives. But he argued that motorists needed “significant relief,” and that “cynics” would slam the idea.

“If it was me, I would probably not do it, to not feed into the cynicism of the public that you’re just doing something as a political stunt,” Brookins said.

Other alderpersons and union leaders also urged the mayor to steer clear of the temporary tax waiver, fearing it would deprive the city of sorely-needed revenue and, potentially, delay capital projects bankrolled by the gas tax.

As a result, Lightfoot has now all but abandoned the temporary waiver.

Instead, she’s talking about the commuting equivalent of guaranteed basic income. That is, offering gas cards to motorists and Ventra card credits to CTA riders.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, shown Wednesday at a city vehicle maintenance facility, has paused her plan to temporarily reduce the city’s gasoline tax. Now she’s considering a plan to distribute gasoline cards and give commuters extra credit on their Ventra cards.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, shown Wednesday at a city vehicle maintenance facility, has paused her plan to temporarily reduce the city’s gasoline tax. Now she’s considering a plan to distribute gasoline cards and give commuters extra credit on their Ventra cards.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Specifics of the giveaway were still being worked out.

It was not clear how many motorists would be impacted, or how much the gas cards or Ventra card credits would be worth.

Brookins said gas cards would be better than a temporary tax reprieve.

“Think about it. You fill up your car. It takes 20 gallons of gas. It’s $100. And we’re gonna save you 60 cents. I just don’t think anyone would have seen that as being anything meaningful,” he said.

Over the last two weeks, potential mayoral challenger Willie Wilson has held two gas giveaways. The first generated massive traffic jams as motorists lined up for hours to get $50 worth of gas until $200,000 ran out. The second freebie was larger but less chaotic. About four dozen stations in the city and suburbs pumped $1 million worth of gas into motorists’ tanks.

“Willie Wilson has shown to us that people will wait in long lines to get the 50 bucks. That can be a welcome [break] for a majority of people. I just wish we could somehow tie it to need,” Brookins said.

Brookins also questioned the need for a Ventra card credit. He noted that, unlike skyrocketing gas prices now hovering around $5-a-gallon or more, CTA fares have been frozen for years.

Businessman and former Chicago mayoral candidate Willie Wilson pumps donated gas for a driver Thursday morning at a BP gas station at 5201 W. Cermak Rd. in Cicero.

Businessman Willie Wilson pumps gas for a driver at a BP station, 5201 W. Cermak Road in Cicero last week. Wilson has been exploring a run for mayor and plans to announce his decision in early April.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the council’s Latino Caucus, agreed that offering motorists a $50 gas card would be better than a partial reprieve from Lightfoot’s gas tax hike.

“That continues to have the [gas tax] revenue stay in place. It helps the people, but also makes sure we don’t put a hole in our budget,” Villegas said.

“I would say $50 is the right amount. That’s about half-a-tank now, if you think about it.”

He argued the mayor’s original plan was “more ceremonial” than real.

“You fill your tank up with 15 gallons. You saved the consumer 45 cents versus the gas card, which would really help people by giving them some breathing room,” Villegas said.

The mayor’s office refused to comment on the change in strategy on the day Lightfoot kicked off Chicago’s 2022 construction season, which includes the second year of her five-year, $3.7 billion capital plan.

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