The cost of getting around Chicago could get a little less expensive for some in the coming months under a plan unveiled today by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
The city is proposing to allocate $12.5 million to give thousands of eligible Chicagoans $150 prepaid gasoline cards and $50 prepaid cards for use on public transportation. The new plan comes as gasoline prices hover around $5 per gallon and as ridership on public transit has plummeted amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her new plan also puts to rest speculation that Lightfoot was considering adjusting the city’s gas tax.
“In thinking about what we could do to actually provide maximum impact, we thought that this was a better way to go, to literally put a gas card in the hands of Chicago residents,” Lightfoot said while unveiling the proposal Thursday.
The city estimates 50,000 gas cards and 100,000 transit cards would be distributed. To be eligible for the cards, recipients would have to live in Chicago and cannot earn more than $91,000 if single and $140,000 if a family of four. Only one card is allowed per household and the city expects to hold a lottery to award the cards.
The City Council will have to vote to approve the program and if they give it the green light, 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.
“We think that these escalated gas prices are going to continue into the summer months, so we want to make sure that we’re giving people relief through the course of the summer,” Lightfoot said.
The mayor promised to make the process “as painless as possible” so people don’t have to “get up at four o’clock in the morning and sit in a long line,” a reference to the gas giveaways done by one of her 2019 challengers, Willie Wilson. He paid for $1.2 million worth of gas for Chicago drivers at stations across the city, which caused long lines and traffic backups.
The head of the Chicago Transit Authority, Dorval R. Carter Jr., urged people feeling pain at the pump to ride the train or bus.
“There is no question that CTA is the most affordable transportation choice in Chicago,” Carter said. “For the price of a gallon of gas, you can ride a whole CTA system across the entire city all day long. A 30-day pass for four months worth of rides costs almost as much as a tank of gas.”
There would also be significantly more $50 cards for CTA rides available than there will be gas cards. The city would distribute 75,000 of those cards to Chicagoans based on their address — prioritizing residents in low-income neighborhoods. The remaining 25,000 would be given out citywide.
The initiative, dubbed “Chicago Moves”, comes after a series of revenue-raising moves the city imposed on transit over the last several years. In 2018, the CTA increased fares a quarter per ride. Though this year, the system did reduce fares to boost ridership. That same year, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel also imposed additional fees on rideshare 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.
Last week, the City Council’s Finance Committee was set to consider an item to amend the section of city law that relates to the gas tax. But that meeting was canceled late Friday. Lightfoot had indicated her team was working “diligently” on a plan to provide relief at the pump.
Reducing the gas tax, which goes toward repairing roads, snow removal and other infrastructure costs, appears to be on ice for now.
The city has “to fix the streets and the potholes so badly,” said Ald. Howard Brookins, 21st Ward, who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Transportation and Public Way. Cutting the city’s portion of the gas tax would be harmful to their ability to address those infrastructure issues, he said.
“It’s always been my thing that the 3% reduction in a gas tax is too gimmicky,” Brookins said. “People would blame us — the politicians — for doing something that got headlines, but was not impactful and meaningful in their lives.”
Becky Vevea covers Chicago politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea