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Access Pilot Program kicks off tomorrow, expanding Metra’s reduced fares to include low-income riders who aren’t elderly or disabled

The initiative starts will run through July 31, 2025, thanks to the combined efforts of the Regional Transportation Authority, Metra, and Cook County.

Photo: RTA

This post is sponsored by the Active Transportation Alliance.

The Access Pilot Program starts tomorrow February 1, running through July 31, 2025, thanks to the combined efforts of the Regional Transportation Authority, Metra, and Cook County. That means that all low-income riders are eligible for reduced fares on the entire Metra system. The pilot builds upon the RTA’s Reduced Fare and Ride Free programs. That reduced fare program is for seniors and people with disabilities, providing them with half off their fare for CTA, Pace, and Metra. The Ride Free program, actually organized by the Illinois Department of Aging, gives people who qualify for the Benefit Assistance Program a free ride permit for reduced CTA, Pace, and Metra fares. 

“Access is a new program that is actually available to anyone that is enrolled in the SNAP program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and in the state of Illinois, our six counties,” said Michael VanDekreke, director of mobility services at RTA. “It's for anyone who receives SNAP. So, what's different about this is that it also applies to people who don't have disabilities or are under the age of 65. They just have a lower income. So that's how it expands it.”

Another regional transit plan that was implemented by the RTA was “Transit is the Answer,” which was finalized about a year ago. According to RTA executive director Leanne Redden in a press release, Transit is the Answer was created “with input from thousands of riders, advocates and stakeholders.” The three principles of the plan, as outlined in the official website, are Equity, Committed to Change, and Stewardship.

“We are excited to partner with the RTA and Cook County on this new pilot,” said Metra executive director/CEO Jim Derwinski in a press release. “Advancing equity in transportation is one of the key goals of Metra’s new strategic plan, 'My Metra, Our Future,' and this program will go a long way toward helping Metra to meet that goal.”

Asked about the inspiration behind the Access Pilot Program, RTA’s senior deputy executive director of planning and capital programming Maulik Vaishnav brought up Transit is the Answer and several other American cities that have expanded their transit in similar ways like Seattle and New York. According to Vaishnav, some of the inspiration for the pilot came from what’s happening in other places, but to also streamline the ability to issue a permit based on SNAP.

“Early on, the biggest assistance is telling as many people as possible that they need to apply for this program,” said Vaishnav. “So, going on our portal and seeing if you if a household receives SNAP benefits and they are not part of an existing reduced or free fare program, and they live in the six counties. They have the opportunity to ride Metra for reduced fare, they just have to go through a pretty simple application process. On our website or several locations... But that is the biggest thing we need right now is for people to be able to hear about the program, sign up for it and get access.”

Applications for the program (in person, on the phone phone, or at started on January 16. Again, the pilot is scheduled to go from February 1, tomorrow, to July 31, 2025, which is 18 months in total. The reason why it’s an 18-month program is because that was what the three collaborating agencies were able to afford, and why the program only applies to Metra. Vaishnav said because of the funding issue, they weren’t able to make Access pilot available for CTA and Pace.

“And all of that dovetails into the post-COVID issues of lower fare revenues on transit that has created what's being called a fiscal cliff,” said Vaishnav. “Between 2021 and now, the federal government stepped in and provided transit agencies across the country funding well as part of the COVID relief funding, and the RTA region will exhaust that funding in late 2025 to early 2026. So we will need state action there as well to make sure our fiscal cliff is closed. Otherwise it would lead to fare increases in service costs and, and create major issues for our riders in the region.”

Active Transportation Alliance advocacy manager Julia Gerasimenko commended Metra, RTA, and Cook County for expanding “accessibility to our crucial regional commuter rail system" with the pilot. She said ATA has advocated for a reduced fare program for low-income riders for a long time and believe that the pilot will “increase ridership, boost economic health of our region, and improve access to healthcare, jobs, food,” and other advantages.

“We look forward to the day when CTA and Pace will follow suit by expanding their reduced-fair programs for low-income riders as well," Gerasimenko said. "Especially as the Fair Transit South Cook pilot sunsets, the Access Pilot Program is a crucial next step to continuing to provide equitable access to all to travel across our region."

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