Plans to shift from taxicab coupons for the elderly to a more comprehensive transportation network subsidy in the form of a City-issued, transit-specific debit card, are moving forward. Several changes have been added since the proposal was introduced to the public at the December 2017 Human Services meeting. The changes come after input from residents at a series of eight focus group meeting held at facilities frequented by seniors.

The most significant change would be a form of means testing, limiting the subsidy to those with income of $30,000 per year or less, and providing tiered benefits – more for those making $15,000 or less. Otherwise, the focus groups expressed a desire for more options, more service areas, and overall more flexibility than the current coupon program offers.

As of now, seniors can obtain subsidized coupons that can be used for taxi rides in and around Evanston, but not into Chicago. Seniors can purchase flat-fee coupons for $4, which the City doubles when the coupons are cashed in by cab drivers.

The new program will replace coupons with a transit-only debit card. Immediately, greater flexibility attaches to the card – it can be used for any transportation anywhere on Uber, Lyft, Metra, the CTA, RTA, Amtrak, or, of course in taxis. The geographic limits will disappear entirely, though Amtrak tickets must be purchased in the state of Illinois. “Most people want to go to Chicago,” said Ms. Thompson. “And that’s currently not available.”

Council for Jewish Elderly (CJE) offers wheelchair-accessible transportation, and Uber WAV (wheelchair accessible vans) also provides an alternative to PACE paratransit for wheelchair-bound residents. Everyone at Over the Rainbow, with many wheelchair residents, said they wanted the debit cards and their flexibility, said Audrey Thompson, the City’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman.

Ms. Thompson presented the program at the March 5 Human Services meeting. One key component that arose in the focus groups was a need for education, she said. “We needed more education – teaching residents how to use the cards,” she said.  

Also, the tiered approach to subsidy was important. “Right now, residents qualify at under $30,000. But $14,000 looks a lot different than $29,000.” Residents will be able to load their transit cards monthly. Those in the lower tier can load up to $125 of their own money and the City will match it, for up to $250 total. Those making $15,000 to $30,000 can load up to $75, which will also be matched, for up to $150 monthly. Card amounts carry over month-to-month, but are capped and cannot stack. The maximum card amounts will be $250 and $150.

There are no current plans to subsidize the match for lower earners more – the program calls for a 50-50 match regardless of income. Those making under $15,000 will still have to come up with the full match amount – $125 per month for a $250 debit card.

Taxicab coupons will still be available for those who do not wish to obtain a debit card, but the amount will increase from $4 to $5. Geographically, the taxi coupons will be even more limited – now to Evanston only, not Skokie or Lincolnwood.

Also, the program will no longer be available to those over 80 years of age regardless of income level. Right now, there is no means-testing for any resident over 80 years old. The new program changes that – anyone making over $30,000 per year will be excluded. “Starting in January, those over 80 will have to provide proof of income to qualify,” said Ms. Thompson.

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, asked about using the debit card for CJE transit. While CJE cannot accept cards right now, the City will work out some means of paying and deducting ride cost from resident accounts, said Ms. Thompson.

“Seems like you’ve thought of everything,” said Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward. The new program will begin rolling out March 19, when current users are notified. They will be given until April 2 to choose between the more limited coupon program and the more flexible debit card option. Anyone with existing taxi coupons can trade them in for debit card credit beginning April 16.

Any eligible residents who are not currently users can sign up beginning April 30. City staff will then provide educational outreach, with assistance from the City’s Age Friendly Task Force and First Bank and Trust, beginning in May.