CTA bus

A 60-foot articulated CTA bus, the type the mass transit operator runs on the J14 and 192 routes.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot's administration plans to respond to the record nationwide rise in gasoline prices by issuing 50,000 vouchers that can be spent at city gas stations and 100,000 public transit vouchers to low- and middle-income Chicagoans.

The prepaid gas cards will be worth $150, and the transit cards will be worth $50 (the value can be added to existing Ventra cards). Three-quarters of the cards are being earmarked for commuters from yet-to-be-determined low-income neighborhoods with high rates of transit use, and the other 25,000 will be distributed through the city's 50 aldermanic ward offices.

The "Chicago Moves" initiative costs $12.5 million total. Households that make 140% or below of the city's area median income ($91,420 for one person, $130,480 for a household of four) will be able to apply for the program beginning April 27 with receipt by lottery, pending City Council approval. Motorists must have a City Sticker to receive a gas voucher.

"According to AAA, Americans are now spending nearly $70 each time they fill up their tank," Lightfoot said at a March 31 City Hall press conference. "I know for many of you, $70 is what you would hope to spend, and in many instances, it's much more. And that equates to a significant portion of the annual income that is now being consumed by these rising gas prices."

"Enabling physical mobility directly ties into economic mobility, and I'm committed to making sure that residents, in their cars and on our roads, are able to move about, so that they are able to commute to work and support their families and earn a meaningful living," she said. "This is one of the many tools in the city's toolbox to eradicate poverty and build generational wealth across Chicago.

"Additionally, boosting CTA ridership is not only good for our recovering transit system but a step in the right direction for reducing carbon emission. And as we know, ridesharing and public transit are valuable ways to conserve energy and ease our reliance on fossil fuels."

CTA President Dorval R. Carter, Jr. noted that ridership on the rapid transit operator has declined the least on the South and West sides during the COVID-19 pandemic, reflecting the fact that public transit in these areas is oftentimes "is the best and sometimes the only option." He called Chicago Moves "an innovative, equity-based approach to ensure that transit is a part of the mayor's plan for relief, especially for riders who rely on the CTA on the South and West sides."

"There is no question that the CTA is the most-affordable transportation choice in Chicago. For the price of a gallon of gas, you can ride the whole CTA system across the entire city all day long," he said. At $75, a 30-day CTA pass is now nearly the same price as the average tank of gas in Chicago.

Lightfoot's action comes as the federal and state governments also respond to the sharp spike in gas prices, one of several price increases in this inflationary moment. President Joe Biden has ordered the release of a million barrels of oil a day from the U.S. Department of Energy's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which he says could lower prices by 10 to 35 cents a gallon.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker wants to declare a gas tax holiday: not implementing a scheduled increase in the Illinois gas tax would save motorists around 2 cents a gallon but cost the state around $135 million in lost revenue that the state spends on roads and other capital improvements.

Local state Rep. Lamont Robinson (D-5th) has said he supports Pritzker's proposal, but Rep. Curtis J. Tarver II (D-25th), while wanting to decrease the gas tax in general, is wary of how saving consumers a few cents a gallon is going to meaningfully help them, even in aggregate.

In a March 29 opinion piece for Crain's, state Rep. Kam Buckner (D-26th) said that the gas tax holiday is a short-term fix, calling them and gas giveaways "smart politically, but not very effective from a long-term public policy standpoint."

He pointed to the quarter of Chicago households that do not have a car and said public transit ought to be more safe, affordable and convenient, which he noted would make the air cleaner and reduce congestion, noting the disproportionate rates of asthma that affect Black and Latino children.

In a yet-unreleased Illinois House resolution, he said he and other representatives will call on the CTA to reduce fares on key corridors, suggesting that the operator install pop-up bus priority lanes and re-time stop lights for the buses to increase their speed.

Buckner said the resolution would also call for the CTA to participate in the Fair Transit South Cook pilot program, which the county government began last year and has brought fares on the Metra Electric and Rock Island lines within Chicago down to about the same rate as 'L' fares.

By not participating, commuters cannot pay a 25-cent transfer to get onto a CTA bus or the 'L' from Millennium Station in the Loop, as they can between two different CTA services. A trip split between CTA and Metra becomes more expensive, and the pilot program's utility to South Siders is limited only to going to and/or from downtown or the south suburbs, because one cannot transfer to the CTA (or, for that matter, the non-discounted Metra lines) and go to the North or West sides.

Several CTA buses link Hyde Park and other South Side neighborhoods to downtown, but Buckner also chided the CTA for not syncing bus schedules with the commuter rail operator.

Asked at an unrelated March 30 press conference about discussions about the CTA's participation in the Fair Transit South Cook pilot program, Lightfoot stressed the CTA's importance to the city and said any partnership could not decrease the operator's ridership and revenue.

"We want to make sure that CTA is vital and strong in years and years to come," she said. "So any plan that is brought to the table has to be one that is a value add, and I'm going to be viewing it first and foremost through the lens of 'what does this mean for the CTA?'"

In an interview, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who championed the pilot and pushed for its enactment (the county government is footing the bill), said her administration is ready to work with the CTA.

The pilot's creation has a long history. When Preckwinkle took office in 2011, Cook County had a Department of Highways, not Transportation, that did not apply for federal Department of Transportation grants. The explanation she got for why this was was that receipt of federal grants would open the county up to federal audits. Preckwinkle moved for a substantial change therein, creating the Department of Transportation and Highways and drafting the county's first long-range transportation plan since the 1940s.

"The interesting thing about the report was that it was a highway network for northeastern Illinois before a single highway had been built," she said. "It was 70 years old, but it was prophetic for its time."

In August 2016, the county Board of Commissioners adopted the long-range transportation plan "Connecting Cook County." "We expanded the role of the department, not just roads and bridges any longer, but pedestrian walkways, bike trails, freight and public transit," Preckwinkle said.

Included in the plan was a look at what parts of the county were ill-served by transit; researchers found that the South Side and south suburbs were, so the Fair Transit South Cook pilot, which also includes Pace's South Halsted Street bus through the suburbs, was proposed and adopted.

"We are hopeful that CTA at some point in the future will decide that they will want to work with us," she said, though she said she has not heard anything from the operator recently. "We're always open to their interests, and we've made it clear that we're interested in working with them."

Lightfoot and Buckner, who is considering challenging her in next year's mayoral election, both say they want state Attorney General Kwame Raoul to look into price gouging by gas stations.

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