A committee of Chicago aldermen narrowly gave the green light Wednesday to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s taxpayer-fuel gas and transit giveaway, despite some critics’ concerns that it’s an election-year stunt.
If approved by the full City Council, Chicago residents making less than $65,300 if single or $93,200 for a family of four will soon be able to apply for either a $50 prepaid card for public transit rides or a $150 prepaid card to use at area gas stations. The city is planning to give away up to 100,000 transit cards and 50,000 gas cards.
City officials will distribute the prepaid cards through a lottery, with priority given to people living in low-income neighborhoods.
The $12.5 million program will be paid for using tax money “swept” from various accounts where the money is no longer needed in the city budget, according to top budget officials.
Lightfoot announced the program on March 31 after speculation she might adjust the city’s gas tax and after one of her mayoral challengers Dr. Willie Wilson held two gas giveaways worth $1.2 million across the region. He announced yesterday a third one will be held this Saturday.
Lightfoot has been careful to say the city giveaway is not a direct response to Wilson, though in unveiling the program, she touted that the gas and transit cards wouldn’t require people to “get up at four o’clock in the morning and sit in a long line,’ a reference to the traffic and long lines associated with Wilson’s giveaways.
Twelve aldermen voted against the mayor’s program, with some calling it an election-year stunt and questioning why the prepaid cards would have the mayor’s name emblazoned on them.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, said his constituents “have said that they feel like this is the mayor trying to prove she has the biggest ‘gas hose,’” a reference to a story in the Chicago Tribune about a lawsuit alleging the mayor used an obscenity with city lawyers. Lightfoot lives in Ramirez-Rosa’s ward.
“I really do not like that this has the mayor’s name prominently on the gas card,” Ramirez-Rosa added.
Budget Committee Chair Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd Ward, said that’s a petty complaint.
“The mayor’s name is on everything,” Dowell said. “You get off a plane coming into Chicago, it says Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Your [pay]check says Mayor Lori Lightfoot. That is a nonissue and really very, very petty.”
Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, 10th Ward, voted against the giveaway because it’s too short-lived.
“If you got a car, you’re filling it up twice and it’s over,” Garza said. “I’d like to see this money go into something a little bit more sustainable, like mental health, homelessness, food deserts, something that can actually impact people’s lives.”
Calling into the meeting from the driver’s seat of his car, Ald. Michael Rodriguez, 22nd Ward, said he would reluctantly support the initiative.
“At its core, we’re taking resources and putting them toward working-class people,” he said. But Rodriguez said he would have liked the city to allocate $12.5 million to the city’s guaranteed basic income pilot program.
Some aldermen also raised environmental issues with the initiative.
“It does feel rushed and responsive or reactive to what Willie Wilson was doing, or is continuing to do,” said Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward. “We’re kind of incentivizing … gas guzzling. I don’t feel comfortable with that.”
Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward, said the city should not use taxpayer money to “subsidize big oil.”
“We’ve got greenhouse emissions goals in the city of Chicago and making it cheaper for some households to continue to drive cars? I don’t see that as good public policy,” Reilly said.
But Lightfoot’s initiative, dubbed Chicago Moves, is not just a gas giveaway for drivers. It also aims to boost ridership on the CTA, which plummeted during the pandemic. The city will dole out twice as many $50 cards for CTA rides than $150 gas cards.
The ordinance that passed through the Committee on Budget and Government Operations on Wednesday authorizes the city to transfer $5 million to the Chicago Transit Authority to purchase 100,000 prepaid transit cards worth $50 each. It also approves a contract with North Lane Technologies, Inc., a third-party administrator, to give out 50,000 $150 gas cards.
The gas and transit giveaway comes as fuel costs have skyrocketed. But rising prices are not solely due to the war in Ukraine or the COVID-19 pandemic. The city has imposed a series of revenue-raising moves on transit over the last several years.
In 2018, the CTA increased fares a quarter per ride, though the system did reduce fares to boost ridership this year. Also in 2018, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel imposed additional fees on ride-share companies, like Uber and Lyft. Lightfoot continued those fee hikes in her first budget, when she rolled out “congestion pricing” on taxicabs, Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing companies. Then, as part of her pandemic budget for 2021, Lightfoot increased the city’s gas tax from $.05 to $.08 per gallon.
Only Chicago residents over the age of 18 who meet the income requirements can apply. Applicants must have a valid city sticker in order to get the prepaid gas card.
The full City Council will have to vote on the ordinance. If approved, applications are expected to open on April 27. The gas cards wouldn’t be distributed all at once, but rather in monthly waves for the next five months.
Becky Vevea covers Chicago government and politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.