"The region's bus and rail systems are providing an average of 3.1 million free rides a month at a cost of at least $49 million a year." — Chicago Tribune, October 30.
"The least the three transit agencies [the CTA, Metra, and Pace] wanted last week was a lifting of the free rides for senior citizens, a move that would have saved them up to $37 million." — Chicago Tribune, November 1.
When the same newspaper can report in a span of three days that the Rod Blagojevich free-rides-for-seniors program is costing the region's transit agencies a minimum of $49 million and a maximum of $37 million, then we can be pretty sure nobody has any idea.
Nobody does. In September the Regional Transportation Authority received a preliminary draft of an analysis done by the University of Illinois at Chicago's Urban Transportation Center of the financial impact of the Senior Ride Free and the Disabled Ride Free programs. "Based on currently available year to date data," said the report, "an annualized loss for 2009 is projected to range from $35.7 - $112.6 million for both programs, with the senior ride free program accounting for $25.1 - $76.3 million of the loss."
Those widely differing projections — minimum $25.1 million loss , maximum $76.3 million loss — come from differing assumptions. The first assumes the free riders were all previously paying reduced fares; the second assumes they were all paying full fares.
Neither assumes that some free riders weren't paying any fares because when the train or bus cost them money they weren't riding.
Professor Joseph DiJohn, who heads UIC's Metropolitan Transportation Support Initiative, tells me his team estimates that the number of senior rides on Pace, Metra, and the CTA more than doubled when those rides became free last year. It can't be sure, because those agencies previously lumped senior riders together with other reduced-fare riders such as children and students.
This estimate invites the reasonable assumption that if senior rides hadn't become free, senior ridership wouldn't have doubled. If this assumption is true, then as many as half the free rides on which these transit agencies are supposedly losing millions of dollars in lost fares were taken only because they were free.
An assumption predicated on an estimate is one that DiJohn says his team does not intend to make. But when his team submits its final report, with its much more closely focused estimate of what the free ride program is costing, newspapers should keep in mind what's distorting the estimate — the unknown number of grateful new riders who are benefiting.