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Upcoming changes to RTA Ride Free program simplify the process for riders

December 15, 2023

221107 RTA 1571

One of the action items of the RTA’s regional transit strategic plan, Transit is the Answer, is to make paying for transit more seamless and more affordable. Upcoming changes to the RTA Ride Free program will work toward that goal by making the process of applying for and renewing Ride Free permits easier for riders.

The RTA’s Ride Free program provides free fares on CTA, Metra, and Pace for older adults and people with disabilities who are enrolled in the Illinois Department on Aging’s Benefit Access program. In the past, riders had to re-apply for BAP every two years and had to prove their income as part of that process.

Any applications received before January 1 will be subject to these old eligibility rules. But beginning January 1, only first-time RTA Ride Free program applicants will need to apply and be found eligible for BAP. If they are approved, they are eligible for the Ride Free program for five years. To renew their permit after five years, all they’ll have to do is demonstrate they are a resident of Illinois by providing a non-expired state ID.

“It is important to the RTA that the application process for this program is not burdensome,” said RTA Director of Mobility Services Michael VanDekreke. “Our experience is that people typically demonstrate that they continue to be eligible for BAP every two years when they reapply, so requiring them to go through the BAP application process each renewal cycle just creates an unnecessary barrier to program access.”

More than 98,000 people are currently enrolled in the RTA’s Ride Free program. The RTA also administers a Reduced Fare program for all older adults and individuals with disabilities, regardless of income. And the agency has launched new initiatives that make paying for transit more seamless and affordable, including providing 25,000 $20 transit passes to The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence for distribution to service providers throughout the region who will get the passes in the hands of survivors of gender-based violence. In February, the RTA is partnering with Metra and Cook County to launch the Access Pilot Program, which extends reduced fares to Metra riders experiencing low incomes.

Join the Transit is the Answer Coalition

Historic underfunding of the regional transit system has been exacerbated in recent years because of pandemic-induced changes in travel patterns that have resulted in drops in ridership and fare revenues. Beginning in 2026, the RTA system is facing a projected $730 million annual budget gap. If the State of Illinois fully funded existing and expanded free and reduced fare programs targeted to vulnerable riders, the transit agencies’ operating budgets that currently fund these programs would be freed up to help fill the gap and improve the system.

Drastic fare increases and service cuts won’t solve this problem — the system requires additional funding, reform, and policy changes that improve transit, making it a more competitive travel option.

To continue the conversation about the value transit brings to the region and the need for additional revenue and policy change, the RTA developed a legislative policy agenda for the 2024 legislative session. Join the Transit is the Answer Coalition to stay informed and get involved in advocating for sustainable transit funding to maintain and improve the system.

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