Card users spared Blue Line O'Hare fare hike -- for now

Chicago RestaurantsAir Transportation IndustryChicago Transit AuthorityChicago City HallUPSUniversity of ChicagoForrest Claypool

After rejecting the tearful pleas and angry demands of CTA bus riders to restore routes that were slashed this week, the transit agency’s board on Tuesday approved a big break for commuters who work at O’Hare International Airport.

But the about-face on a fare-hike decision will temporarily benefit everyone who jumps on the Blue Line at O’Hare using a Chicago Card or a Chicago Card Plus.

Responding to complaints to the CTA and City Hall from the airport workers, airlines and companies operating at O’Hare, workers there will be permanently spared from paying a new $5 fare when they board the train at O’Hare, officials said. The board also voted to waive a more than doubling of the fare, from $2.25 to $5, effective Jan. 14 and extending six months, for Blue Line customers departing the airport if the fares are paid using a version of the Chicago Card.

All other Blue Line riders – paying fares with cash or regular transit cards – will be hit with the $5 fare in mid-January, as previously planned under the CTA’s 2013 budget of $1.39 billion, which the board unanimously approved Tuesday.

CTA officials initially contended that the proposed $5 O’Hare fare would affect mostly visitors to the city. But howls of protest from pilots, flight attendants, Transportation Security Administration officers and workers earning as little as minimum wage at O’Hare restaurants forced the transit agency to confer with the Chicago Department of Aviation and come up with a different plan, sources said.

The 2013 budget also hikes the price of 1-day, 3-day, 7-day and 30-day passes on Jan. 14. The fare hikes will generate a projected $56 million next year, officials said.

Despite CTA officials’ statements that most O’Hare workers already use passes on the CTA, pilots and flight attendants say they tend to pay single fares because they are out of town on trips for much of each month and thus cannot get enough use out of a multiday pass to justify its cost.

Following the initial six-month reprieve on O’Hare Blue Line fare hikes for Chicago Card and pass users, non-airport workers will pay the $5 fare on trips originating at the airport, unless they use a CTA pass or a Chicago Card or a Chicago Card Plus card that is linked to a one-day or multiday pass, officials said.

The six-month postponement is designed to give the transit agency more time to come up with a solution to permanently exempt airport workers only from the $5 fare, officials said.

The new Ventra fare-collection card, which the CTA and Pace plan to debut next year enabling transit riders to both pay fares and make everyday purchases across the Chicago region, will be a key to that solution, CTA President Forrest Claypool said. He said the Ventra open-fare card will be linked to the ID badges of O’Hare workers – from airline pilots to janitors – so that they will be charged only the $2.25 base fare when going through the Blue Line turnstiles at O’Hare.

The $750,000 the CTA will lose because it delayed imposing for six months the $2.75 surcharge on the $2.25 base rail fare is enough money to cover the cost of bringing back the popular No. 145 Wilson/Michigan Express bus route for a year, or restoring the No. 11 Lincoln/Sedgwick bus to its full route for about six months, according to costs the CTA provided related to operating each of the lines.

The CTA eliminated the No. 145 and scaled back the No. 11 this week to cut costs. The agency reinvested the funds in a crowding-reduction program aimed at adding service on other bus routes and rail lines with higher ridership.

Asked why the outcry from O’Hare workers was heeded by the CTA, but a much more publicly vocal, grass-roots protest by CTA bus customers was ignored, Claypool said: “The (CTA) board made the decision and the board stuck by that decision.’’

To compensate for the loss of $750,000 in fare revenue at O’Hare, internal technology projects at the CTA will be delayed three to six months, Claypool said.

Rebekah Scheinfeld, the CTA’s chief planning officer, continued to defend the unpopular decision to eliminate 12 bus routes and shorten others, saying “robust options are available’’ for displaced riders. But many riders said they dislike the alternatives, or are unwilling or unable to walk the half-mile or farther to reach them.

Meanwhile, two privately subsidized CTA bus routes that were also on the chopping block have been saved, officials announced. The CTA reached separate five-year deals with the William Wrigley Jr. Co. and United Parcel Service Inc. to continue two express bus routes, the No. 132 Goose Island Express and the No. 169 69th/UPS Express. The companies agreed to fully cover the non-farebox costs to operate the service used by their employees.

Seven other subsidized CTA bus routes, including some that serve the University of Chicago campus, are still in limbo, officials said.

Jhilkevitch@tribune.com

Twitter: @jhilkevitch

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