Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to use $12.5 million in city funds to give away prepaid gas cards and CTA passes narrowly avoided hitting a red light Wednesday — but the road ahead could be bumpy.
The Chicago City Council’s Budget and Government Operations Committee voted 15-12 to advance the proposal, even as several members blasted Lightfoot’s plan as an election-year stunt that would benefit oil companies without offering Chicagoans real relief from the pain at the pump.
That narrow margin sets up what could be a nailbiter of a final vote at the City Council meeting set for April 27. The plan calls for the distribution of 50,000 prepaid cards that will cover $150 worth of gas as well as 100,000 passes that will cover $50 worth of CTA rides.
Even those who supported the plan said they would vote for the program reluctantly, and only because so many people were already counting on the money, which will be awarded through a lottery.
“This is a small way to help some people who are challenged,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th Ward).
But others echoed Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th Ward), who said the money would be better spent on more sustainable solutions to the economic woes facing Chicagoans.
“If you got a car and you're filling it up twice, it's over,” Sadlowski Garza said.
The CTA passes would pay for approximately five full-fare round trips.
Other alderpeople said the $12.5 million should have been used to expand the city’s $31.5 million universal basic income plan, which will start accepting applicants on Monday.
Lightfoot twice revised her proposal in an attempt to earmark the gas cards and CTA passes to Chicagoans most in need in order to push it through the Budget Committee.
Originally, Lightfoot told reporters that the lottery for the gas and transit cards would be open to all Chicagoans who earn no more than 140% of the area median income — which is $91,000 for an individual and $140,000 for a family of four.
But alderpeople objected to that plan, and the current proposal limits the program to those who earn no more than 100% of the area median income, which is $65,300 for an individual or $93,200 for a family of four.
In all, the proposal would use $7.5 million for the prepaid gas cards and $5 million for the CTA passes.
The proposal was also changed to give residents of some neighborhoods on the South and West sides, where public transportation is not accessible or is the only option, priority for both the gas cards and the CTA passes in response to concerns lodged by alderpeople. That means $5.6 million worth of the gas cards will be earmarked for residents of the South and West sides — as well as $3.75 million worth of the CTA cards, according to the proposal.
But that change nearly torpedoed the program, and could cause potholes to develop on the path to final approval. Several alderpeople, who face re-election in 10 months, said they would not support the program because their constituents were not likely to benefit.
“What am I supposed to tell my people?” asked Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th Ward).
Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th Ward) said the cards, which look like a debit card from the bank of Chicago emblazoned with the city’s iconic skyline, should not include Lightfoot’s name.
“This does not feel like good public policy,” Ramirez Rosa said, adding that it was clearly prompted by Willie Wilson’s decision to hold two high-profile events across the city that gave away $1.2 million in gas before announcing that he will run for mayor.
While Lightfoot has not yet announced her re-election bid, she is widely expected to seek a second term.
But Budget Committee Chair Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) called it “petty” to object to the mayor’s name on the card.
Lightfoot campaigned for mayor in 2019 as a reformer who would root out the corruption and self-dealing entrenched at Chicago City Hall. For decades, Chicago politicians slapped their name on nearly every piece of public infrastructure possible, including toll roads, airport welcome signs and road barriers.
“Believe me, there are some folks out there who will probably appreciate having this opportunity,” said Ald. Emma Mitts (37th Ward.) “And I don't care whose name is on it. Somebody’s got to sign the check.”
The plan to offer prepaid gas cards and CTA passes is Lightfoot’s second attempt to respond to the political pressure caused by rising gas prices, which have begun to level off during the past several weeks. The average cost of a gallon of gas is $4.51 in Chicago, according to AAA. A month ago, a gallon of gas cost $5.01. One year ago, a gallon of gas was $3.16.