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CHICAGO—In Chicago, the dead are known to vote.

Turns out they also take public transit, according to an investigation by the Better Government Association and Fox Chicago News.

A yet-to-be-released government audit found widespread abuse of a taxpayer-subsidized program that lets senior citizens ride free on the CTA, Pace and Metra – with a number of instances of senior free-ride passes being used on trains and buses after the registered cardholders had died.

The Regional Transportation Authority – which oversees the three agencies and is conducting the audit – isn’t pinning this on the supernatural. Instead, it seems once cardholders die, friends and relatives who are very much alive sometimes use their free-ride passes to illegally ride the system – or even sell them to make a buck, said RTA spokeswoman Diane Palmer.

And they’ve been getting away with it because, RTA officials acknowledged, the oversight hasn’t been great – with no mechanism to automatically deactivate cards once a holder passes away and no consistent method for confirming the identity of the riders carrying them.

The RTA audit aims to get a handle on the abuse, and find ways to stop it, RTA officials said. They also are likely to use the data to help justify ending the senior free-ride program, which was foisted on them two years ago by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich in what many regarded as a “political stunt.” (It’s already sucked at least $38 million in revenues from the cash-starved transit systems, a figure that does not take into account any abuses.)

“Look, our transit agencies are in tough enough financial shape, as is our state government, so it’s a fair question to ask whether this program should continue,” Andy Shaw, BGA executive director, said. “Add to that the problems now coming to light—and the limp enforcement—and we could be talking about millions of additional dollars being siphoned away.”

“At the very least, the RTA and its sister agencies need to get their act together to ensure all riders are paying their fair share—or should we say, their ‘fare share.’”

There are various legislative proposals being kicked around that would end or scale back the free rides initiative for seniors, but nothing has been approved by the General Assembly. Gov. Pat Quinn wants to keep the free rides for everyone, his spokesman said.

The RTA favors giving seniors a break on fares, so long as they meet a certain level of financial need, Palmer said. As it now stands, even wealthy residents of the six-county Chicago region may qualify for free CTA, Pace and Metra rides if they’re 65 and older.

Currently, about 427,000 seniors have free-ride passes in metro Chicago—a figure that keeps climbing.

It’s unclear how much money the unauthorized card sharing—which the RTA considers a form of “fare evasion,” a misdemeanor—is costing the transit systems in lost fares, but the number likely is quite high.

Aside from the “dead” travelers, auditors also suspect numerous living card-holders are lending their senior free-ride passes to younger friends and relatives so they can ride trains and buses without paying.

The BGA and Fox Chicago News set out to test how easy that was, with two male reporters (ages 40 and 49) borrowing the senior free-ride passes from their fathers to ride on CTA buses and trains, and a Pace bus, one day last week. (A 21-year-old intern for Fox also was able to board a CTA bus and an L train using one of the passes.)

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“It was ridiculously easy,” Shaw said. “Nobody at the CTA or Pace so much as blinked an eye. We did this to prove a point. And, for the record, we will be reimbursing the agencies for the fares.”

As for those “riding while dead,” the RTA audit came across roughly 160 senior free-ride passes still being used after the registered cardholder died. Those passes were used anywhere from a few times to 1,400 after the death, officials said.

The abuse was confined to the CTA and Pace, where fare collection generally involves tapping a pass against a keypad at an L turnstile or bus farebox. On Metra, the use of someone else’s free-ride pass could be tough, because conductors collect fares by hand and are supposed to eyeball the accompanying photo on a pass.

“If you have a senior free-ride card and you’re in your 20s and there’s a picture of Granny, it’s not going to cut it,” said Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet. “I don’t think we have that problem over here. If it happens, our crew will call them on it.”

CTA spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney said her agency recognized problems last year with riders misusing passes. Now, its security force engages in regular stings to stop riders from using other people’s fare cards on the L, she said.

On buses, drivers are empowered to seize cards if a rider is using someone else’s, she said. (So far this year, more than 300 senior passes have been confiscated by the CTA, Gaffney said.)

The RTA audit, which began earlier in the year, should be completed in coming weeks, and RTA officials are discussing—should senior rides continue and not be scrapped—implementing more aggressive enforcement and punishment to curb abuses.

“This is a time when the transit system is in dire straits,” Palmer said. “This is a travesty” that people are gaming the system at the expense of others.

Written and reported by BGA Investigations Editor Robert Herguth

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