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Chicago to Distribute Prepaid Transit Cards as Gas Prices Soar

The city will make available prepaid gas and transit cards, worth $150 each, for as many as 50,000 drivers and $50 for up to 100,000 transit riders. The announcement follows a possible mayoral candidate’s free gas giveaways.

(TNS) — The city of Chicago plans to make available $12.5 million in prepaid gas and public transit cards as prices at the pump soar, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Thursday.

The plan, which comes weeks after possible 2023 mayoral candidate Willie Wilson spearheaded several rounds of free gas giveaways, includes gas cards worth $150 each for as many as 50,000 drivers, and transit cards worth $50 each for as many as 100,000 riders. Wilson on Thursday blasted the mayor’s plan and called it a “political stunt.”

“This is one of the many tools in the city’s toolbox to eradicate poverty and build generational wealth across Chicago,” Lightfoot said. “Additionally, boosting CTA ridership is not only good for our recovering transit system, but a step in the right direction to reduce carbon emissions.”

Residents must apply for the cards, which would be distributed via a lottery system in waves throughout the summer, according to the city. Three-quarters of the transit cards would be prioritized for residents in low-income neighborhoods who use the CTA often. The remainder would be distributed throughout the city.

“It will benefit CTA riders across the city, but especially on the South and West sides,” CTA President Dorval Carter said. “Areas that saw the lowest ridership declines during the pandemic, areas where public transit is the best and sometimes the only option.”

Thursday, the average price for a gallon of regular gas in the city of Chicago was $4.84 up from $3.33 a year ago, according to AAA.

As gas prices climbed in recent weeks, drivers lined up for Wilson’s gas giveaways, causing traffic jams and at times unmanageable crowds.

Wilson has said he will soon announce whether he will run again for mayor in 2023, potentially setting up a match against Lightfoot. The perennial political candidate has run unsuccessfully for Chicago mayor before.

Lightfoot is expected to announce her own reelection campaign in the coming weeks, though she has at times played coy about whether she will run again even though she has been fundraising.

Wilson called the gas and transit card plan “tone deaf” in a statement.

He told the Tribune he is still considering another gas giveaway and questioned why Lightfoot waited until after his events to take action to provide gas price relief. He said gas tax relief would help more Chicago residents than prepaid cards selected by lottery.

“If she’s doing it with taxpayer dollars, every taxpayer should benefit from the lower taxes in terms of gasoline, not just a few,” he said.

The Sun-Times previously reported that Lightfoot had been considering gas tax relief.

Asked Thursday why she chose gas and transit cards instead, Lightfoot said the city had not rejected gas tax relief, but thought prepaid cards were a better option.

“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,” she said. “And then obviously we want to continue to emphasize the importance of lowering our carbon emissions by partnering up with the CTA to give those transit riders relief at the same time.”

A gas tax holiday would have had bigger costs for the city, and could mean less spending on roads and bridges, said Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

A more targeted program such as prepaid cards would likely mean less expense to the city, he said, but raised other issues. While the prepaid transit cards are a positive, subsidizing gasoline runs against environmental efforts to promote more sustainable travel options, he said.

And the transit cards might bring riders back to public transit, but might not keep them there for the long term, he said.

“I go back to the fact that what people want most is safe, efficient, clean service,” he said. “And the cost can be a secondary factor.”

Applications for gas and transit cards will open April 27, if City Council approves the plan. To be eligible, applicants must live in Chicago and their household income must be no more than 140 percent of the area’s median income, or more than $130,000 for a family of four. Gas card applicants must have a valid city sticker.

Only one card will be issued per household, and the cards will be valid for one year. Gas cards can only be spent at gas stations in Chicago.

©2022 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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