Lightfoot tweaks gas card giveaway yet again to smooth road to City Council passage

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plans to reserve 75% of gas cards for residents of South and West side neighborhoods defined as “high-mobility hardship.”

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Chicago Transit Authority President Dorval Carter Jr. discusses a new program intended to help Chicago residents facing higher transportation costs. Also taking part in the news conference at City Hall on Thursday, March 31, 2022 were (from left) City Clerk Anna Valencia and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Chicago Transit Authority President Dorval Carter Jr. discusses the “Chicago Moves” program intended to help Chicago residents facing higher transportation costs.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is tweaking her proposed gas card giveaway yet again in an attempt to mollify opposition and pave the road to City Council approval.

Two weeks ago, Lightfoot’s plan to give away $150 gas cards to motorists squeezed at the pump and $50 Ventra cards to lure commuters back to the CTA ran into a buzz saw of opposition — even after the income threshold was reduced from $140,000 to $93,000 for a family of four.

Some branded it a “political stunt” tailor-made to one-up mayoral challenger Willie Wilson’s $1.2 million in gas giveaways. Others questioned why the city was “encouraging people to drive” by giving away “the equivalent of two free tanks of gas.”

Black Caucus Chairman Jason Ervin (28th) complained that the $150 gas cards wouldn’t benefit residents who are “forced to drive” because they’re afraid to take the CTA for fear of being mugged.

Now, the mayor’s ordinance has been revised to address Ervin’s concern in hopes of winning approval at the Budget Committee meeting on Wednesday.

The change would reserve 75% of the $12.5 million gas card lottery for residents of South and West side neighborhoods defined as “high-mobility hardship.” The remaining 25% of gas cards would be distributed citywide.

That’s the same formula Lightfoot had already planned to use for the free Ventra cards.

Yet another change would authorize the city to shift money between the gas and mass transit freebies if demand for one exceeds the other and money is left over.

Ervin was pleased with the change.

“I don’t know all of the nuances as to how it’s defined. But I know that East Garfield, West Garfield, Austin and some South Side communities are included in those low-mobility areas,” Ervin said.

“We should focus this relief in areas that lack the mobility that other portions of the city have. I support that because it will give residents in South and West side communities a greater opportunity — especially those that are transit-starved — to get those” gas cards.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) was not certain that the latest changes will be enough to get the mayor’s plan over the hump.

Reilly noted that opposition to the mayor’s original version seemed to be coming from “across the Council ideological spectrum and for different reasons.”

“Some people, like me, are opposed to the program because subsidizing gasoline usage is not good public policy — especially at a time when we are trying to encourage more people to avail themselves of an underutilized public transit system,” Reilly wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Others are opposed because they believe the `lottery’ aspects of the giveaway are gimmicky and don’t guarantee the relief gets to those who really need it. [Still] others question the timing of spending tax dollars on gas giveaways in an election year.”

Almost everyone is eager to help families squeezed by inflation and rising gas prices. But Reilly said there is a legitimate disagreement on how to go about it.

“I’d argue stabilizing the CTA and making it a safe travel option would be a great first step in helping millions of Chicagoans. And it doesn’t involve the bad policy of subsidizing more fossil fuel consumption,” Reilly wrote.

Transportation Committee Chairman Howard Brookins (21st) acknowledged that “a lot” of his colleagues believe Lightfoot is using federal stimulus funds to one-up Wilson.

But Brookins said reserving 75% of the gas card lottery for residents of “transit-starved” South and West side neighborhoods should be enough to round up the 26 votes needed for passage.

“Certain of my colleagues have an issue with free gas giveaways to people who live in areas that, it would appear, don’t necessarily need it. What I’ve been hearing from my colleagues is, if you want to help somebody, help somebody who really needs the help within these areas that have been underserved,” he said.

Council members are “in a no-win” situation because the gas giveaway has already been announced, Brookins said.

“You put people in a pickle or a box because it is so close to election time. It’s a free giveaway. And who doesn’t like free?” he said.

When “Chicago Moves” was announced, the mayor’s plan was to dole out gas cards 10,000 at a time in monthly lotteries starting in May and continuing through the summer in anticipation of continued pain at the pump.

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