Illinois legislators propose free transit rides for military

By: Erica Christoffer

As the Illinois General Assembly considers whether to provide free rides on public transit to members of the military, lawmakers have had a hard time putting a price tag on it.

This comes on the heels of Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s $30 million plan to allow senior citizens to ride for free on public buses and trains, sugarcoating the state’s passage of a 0.25 percent regional sales tax increase in Cook County and 0.5 percent in the five surrounding collar counties for CTA, Metra and Pace.

Greg Longhini, CTA assistant board secretary, said that cost analysis has yet to be completed, as has the implementation process for awarding the free rides to service men and women.

Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Westmont) and Rep. Daniel Burke (D-Chicago) have each introduced legislation to enact the free rides throughout the state.

“The reason I proposed this is because America is at war and we owe everything to our military. They deserve to ride for free,” said Dillard.

Dillard’s bill, as it currently stands, proposes free rides on transit throughout the state for active military in uniform only. However, he said he plans to amend the bill to allow free rides for all active military personnel, even if not in uniform, providing they have proper identification.

The cost, he said, has not been determined yet.

Rep. Daniel Burke’s bill would follow suit with Dillard’s. Burke said he would be surprised if his proposal would cost less that $500,000 to implement annually.

“It was something I thought would be appropriate to honor our military,” said Rep. Burke, who is planning to name the measure after fellow legislator Rep. Jim Watson (R-Jacksonville) in light of his recent deployment to Iraq as a U.S. Marine Corp Reserve.

Dillard said each transit service board would come up with its own methodology for implementation, if the proposal does become state law.

Both Dillard and Burke said they would be open to also allowing disabled veterans to ride for free statewide, but Dillard said that’s an issue to governor should takes the reigns on.

There are nearly 1 million veterans and about 9,000 active members of the military in the state of Illinois. About 84,000 veterans received disability compensation in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Regional Transportation Authority Board Director Judy Baar Topinka was the original proponent of discounted rides for military personnel.

“I do not think the military needs travel free but rather at discount,” said Baar Topinka. “My big concern is that the discount not be connected to the wearing of a uniform rather than keying off of a military ID.”

Pace currently does give half-priced rates to military personnel in uniform. The costs, she said are “minimal.”

The Chicago City Council approved a 40 percent real estate transfer tax increase Feb. 6, the city’s share of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bailout. In that measure, aldermen demanded that the CTA also provide free rides to active military personnel and disabled veterans.

Donal Quinlan, spokesman for Ald. Ed Burke (14th), chair of the City Council’s Finance Committee, said that the free rides requirement was added by Burke “as a sweetener” for the real estate transfer tax increase. The boost would cost about $900 more on an average $300,000 home in Chicago, equating to an estimated $2.3 billion in revenue for the CTA over the next 30 years.

Yet when asked how much the new city ordinance will cost the CTA, Quinlan said a hard number hasn’t been established yet. But that the cost, he said, would be far less that the $30 million state measure to let senior citizens ride for free.

The city ordinance will go into effect with the CTA April 12.

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