Friday, January 30, 2009

TNSTAAFL and Blago's free rides

Blago is gone. Good riddance. Now the question is not who will pick up the pieces, but what pieces should be picked up. Which of the disgraced former Illinois governor's monomaniacal actions should be undone immediately?

My choice is the year-old Free Rides for Seniors plan, in which those over 65, as well as people with disabilities, who live in the six Chicago collar counties can ride Chicago Transit Authority buses, L trains and Metra commuter trains for nothing but the effort to obtain an official free pass.

In January of '08, Blagojevich plucked this puzzling entitlement out of the blue even though nobody was advocating it, nor had a need for it been demonstrated. It was Blago's political pound of flesh for allowing Chicago to increase its tax bite.

The then spaghetti-spined Illinois legislature went along with the scheme just to avoid gridlock with the governor. It didn't matter that the long financially beleaguered Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees the CTA and Metra, would have to find $30 million somewhere to pay for the plan. Regular fares would have to be raised -- again and again.

Most of us seniors didn't -- and don't -- need free rides. We already were enjoying a reduced-fare plan, at least those of us needy enough -- or thrifty enough -- to go down and apply for the senior-citizens transit card. The poorest could already ride free, thanks to the "Circuit Breaker" program for low-income citizens.

I will confess that I hold a free-ride card, being a cheap (but not quite needy) geezer. Like a libertarian who rails against a liberal entitlement but wallows in it anyway because he can, I saw the opportunity and took it. In fact, as an unreconstructed rail buff I dreamed of seeing if I could ride every single Metra commuter line and L route within a week for free just to say I had done it. Never did -- the idea was just not that exciting -- and in the last year I've used my free pass maybe three times.

If the Illinois Legislature decides to get rid of the Seniors Ride Free plan -- and it should -- I'll happily burn my card. It is absolutely unnecessary, and its existence is a painful reminder of the former governor's profligate political weirdness.

By the way, if the "TNSTAAFL" reference in this blogpost's headline puzzles you, that was the conservative economist Milton Friedman's shorthand for "There's no such thing as a free lunch." Those free-marketers weren't always wrong.

(With thanks to Gilbert B. Norman.)

JAN. 31: I have learned that "TNSTAAFL" was coined by the science fiction novelist Robert A. Heinlein. Friedman freely credited Heinlein when he used the term.


  1. Clearly, the plan should continue and should be funded by property tax increases in Winnetka. The legislature could call it the Chicago Rail Assisted by Patricians Act or "CRAP Act"


  2. Mr. Kisor, i also have no desire whatever to take a railfan joyride over both the CTA and METRA Systems simply "because it's there - and for free at that".

    I have used the Pass for journeys Clinton St to O'Hare, Clarendon Hills to CUS, and on occasion, simply to "catch up" with a dear friend who works here in Clarendon Hills, CH to Westmont and from there walk home for the return.


  3. GBN, if we were 40 years younger . . . but then we wouldn't be eligible for the free pass.

    On the other hand, Metra scenery is, well, unmemorable. You ride one line, you've ridden them all.