Seniors, people with disabilities, CPS students should ride CTA free, mayoral challenger Brandon Johnson says

Johnson already had proposed free CTA rides for CPS students. Friday, he unveiled a transportation plan that extends free rides to the elderly and people with disabilities — and offers deep discounts to the working poor.

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A CTA Red Line train.

Free CTA rides for CPS students, the elderly and people with disabilities are among the items in Brandon Johnson’s transportation plans.

Sun-Times file

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Mayoral challenger Brandon Johnson on Friday proposed an ambitious and potentially costly transportation plan that would provide free CTA service for elderly riders, people with disabilities and Chicago Public School students, plus discounted fares for low-income residents.

“In order to have a better Chicago, you have to have a reliable transportation system, one that Chicagoans can afford,” Johnson told the Sun-Times.

“The fact that we have real structural racism that has created real transportation deserts ... in Black communities in particular has hurt our city tremendously. … This transportation plan ... actually addresses the structural inequalities that have harmed Black and Brown and working-class communities that really need the type of restoration that eliminates the burden that working families have to endure just to survive in Chicago.” 

Earlier this week, Johnson unveiled an education plan that includes waiving CTA fares for CPS students year-round. The transportation plan ups the ante by extending the CTA freebie to seniors and riders with disabilities, and offering deep discounts to the working poor. He did not give a designated age for senior riders.

“The economic viability of Chicago is contingent upon our ability to protect working people, middle-class families, people who are struggling and living in poverty,” Johnson said.

Senior citizens and people with disabilities are already eligible for RTA discount cards, but Johnson wants them “to access free rides on the CTA without a complicated enrollment process.”

His free rides proposal comes at a perilous time. Ridership is at half of pre-pandemic levels, partly because the system is viewed as unsafe and unreliable. Fare box revenue is supposed to cover half of expenses, but now cover just 18%.

Several mayoral challengers have said that the CTA is in danger of going bankrupt when federal stimulus money runs out in 2025.

A JC Decaux bus shelter with an LED Bus Tracker sign at Randolph and La Salle streets.

The CTA is struggling to regain riders it lost during the pandemic.

Sun-Times file

Pressed on how the CTA can afford to reduce or forfeit fares, Johnson said it can’t afford not to do it.

“We actually strengthen our economy by creating better opportunities for working people to access public transportation,” said Johnson, a Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Board commissioner.

Johnson did not put an overall price tag on his transportation plan, which also would:

• Improve neighborhood sidewalks to make communities walkable.

• Provide free and low-cost bicycle programs in Black and Brown communities.

• Lower speed limits and increase commercial regulation on residential streets.

• Create “true bus rapid transit systems” allowing riders to “pay before they board.” His bus plan also includes “bus-only lanes with traffic signals that give buses priority.”

Also in his plan: improve Blue Line service to and from Forest Park; build more pedestrian islands, curve bump-outs and other “traffic-calming” devices; plow sidewalks at city expense; and invest in intersection improvements along DuSable Lake Shore Drive “that keep pedestrians, bikers and drivers safe.”

Asked whether discounts for the working poor would be 50% or 70%, Johnson replied: “Sounds like a good place to negotiate.”

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who’s running for mayor of Chicago.

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who’s running for mayor of Chicago, unveiled a wide-ranging transportation agenda on Friday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Johnson did not explain how he plans to pay for the freebies and new programs while also keeping his promise to fill 800 CTA job vacancies, including 650 bus driver spots.

He only pointed to the tax-the-rich plan he previously announced to bankroll $1 billion in new spending on public schools, transportation, housing, health care and job creation.

“The way that we’ve been doing it for the last 50 years in this city — it has not worked. We have prioritized the interests of corporations and the ultra-rich,” he said. “Under my administration, we’re gonna make sure that the voices of people are heard.”

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