Lightfoot’s gas and transit giveaways hit rough patch — even after income threshold reduced

Many City Council members questioned the mayor’s motives. Others noted the $12.5 million cost and wondered if improving security should come first. The prepaid cards would cover about two tanks of gas or five CTA round-trips.

SHARE Lightfoot’s gas and transit giveaways hit rough patch — even after income threshold reduced
Gas station attendants fill drivers’ tanks with free gas courtesy of mayoral candidate and businessman Dr. Willie Wilson at the Mobil gas station at 1950 Green Bay Rd. in Evanston, Ill., Thursday morning, March 24, 2022. Wilson is giving away $1 million worth of free gas in 50 gas stations in Cook County.

Two motorists pump gasoline into their vehicle during Willie Wilson’s second gas giveaway in March.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori 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 legislative potholes on Wednesday — even after the income threshold was lowered.

When Lightfoot announced the $12.5 million, pre-election giveaway last week, she talked about using a rolling lottery to offer gas cards to motorists over 18 with a valid city sticker and a maximum household income that does not exceed 140% of the area median income for Chicago. That works out to a limit of about $140,000 for a family of four.

She defended the relatively high income threshold then: “Regardless of what your income point is, when you’re paying $6-a-gallon for gas as many people are across the city, that hits you.”

During a subject matter hearing Wednesday before the City Council’s Committee on Budget and Government Operations, Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett announced the eligibility threshold had been lowered to 100% of the average median income — about $93,000 for a family of four.

“It was through the feedback from aldermanic briefings that we had. Ultimately, through that feedback, we created a greater equity lens on that,” Bennett told alderpersons.

“At 100% of area median income, you’re talking about 500,000 households. And we’re providing cards to 150,000 households. Which, in essence, covers us with 30% of the total eligible population.”

The change was not enough to appease Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), one of the mayor’s most outspoken council critics.

“This is just a political stunt. We’re out here giving away Ring doorbells. We’re giving away money for cameras. We’re giving away bicycles. Now, we’re giving away gas and bus cards. All these things are happening within the last 30 days,” Beale said.

“I believe this is a direct … reaction [to] the great giveaway that Willie Wilson so generously gave out of his pocket to help people with the gas prices. I just don’t like playing games with the taxpayer dollars.”

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 donated gas for a driver at a BP station at 5201 W. Cermak Rd. in Cicero on March 24. Wilson is exploring a run for mayor and has scheduled his official announcement for next week.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) sounded equally suspicious of the mayor’s motives.

“This is not a reaction to Willie, is it? ... What if he starts doing something else? Are we gonna react to that, too?” Burnett asked.

“You don’t like to react to the gimmicks sometimes. ... It’s a slippery slope.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said he’s gotten an earful from constituents who view the giveaway as a “re-election year stunt … Mr. Willie Wilson did his own gas giveaway. Now the mayor wants to have her own gas giveaway as well.”

He demanded to know if Lightfoot’s “branding, likeness or name” would appear, either on the cards or on the brochures and other materials touting the giveaway and encouraging Chicagoans to apply for the lottery.

Bennett said the mayor’s likeness will not appear on any of the materials, but added: “They will have the mayor’s name on it because the mayor’s name is on almost everything we do as a city.”

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) noted the mayor’s giveaway would cover only “the equivalent of two tanks of gas or five-round trips on the CTA.”

“It doesn’t feel right to me to be essentially providing a subsidy for gasoline usage. Big Oil is still getting paid and they’re not helping us much with their pricing. And then, after two tanks of gas, it’s gone and we have not much to show for it except a bit more carbon in the air. It also seems like it’s competing against the CTA,” Reilly said.

“I just don’t see this significantly moving the needle. It’s to a very limited group of folks in the city and some of this is by lottery — if you just happen to be a lucky person that day.”

A train leaves the Morgan Street station, headed toward the Loop, on March 29, 2022.

To lure riders back to the CTA, Mayor Lori wants to distribute $50 Ventra cards. Here, a train leaves the Morgan Street station, headed toward the Loop.

Sun-Times file

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) added: “We recently divested from fossil fuels companies. Now we want to encourage people to be driving and we’re gonna give ’em more money. I just don’t get that.

Reilly wondered if the $5 million for mass transit cards would be better spent “putting cops on these trains” to lure commuters afraid to ride for fear of being mugged or worse.

“The best way to increase ridership on the CTA — especially the trains — is to make them safer. That will get people back to system. Certainly, people will be coming back to work. But, folks still aren’t comfortable using the train system. They’re scared,” Reilly said.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the Black Caucus, represents “low mobility communities” on the West Side one area targeted for the mass transit freebies.

Even so, he said, “a lot of my residents don’t want to take public transit because of the [security] challenges that exist with public transit, and are [then] forced to drive.”

When the hearing ended, it was obvious why Budget Chair Pat Dowell (3rd) had announced no vote would be taken: There was too much opposition.

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