Free senior rides are costing the city’s three transportation systems $37 million a year, according to a study to be released next week by the University of Illinois at Chicago.

This is not a new battle for Charles Paidock, secretary of the transportation lobbying group Citizens Taking Action. He lobbied for the original seniors program in 2008. In his view, the transit agencies have been trying to figure out a way to get rid of it ever since.

His group obtained a position paper that the RTA delivered to Illinois state lawmakers last year in support of a bill to repeal the 2008 mandate providing free rides for all seniors. Based on the preliminary results from the UIC study, the paper argues that, if rides were limited to low income seniors, the CTA alone would see an increase in fare revenue of up to $25 million.

Diane Palmer, communications director for the Regional Transportation Association, which oversees the three regional transit agencies, confirmed the numbers. “When legislation was passed, it was a mandate that said you will provide these services, with no funding,” she said. The RTA gave $500,000 to UIC to study the impact of free senior passes.

The Seniors Ride Free program was part of a long term transportation funding bill, passed in January 2008, which gave the three transit agencies $494 million in new, recurring funding.

In August 2009, the Illinois House considered a bill that would repeal the free ride program, and replace it with free rides for only low-income seniors. Other seniors would pay a reduced fare, similar to what they would have paid before the program. The House narrowly passed the bill, but it was defeated by just one vote in the Senate.

When the House bill surfaced last year, Paidock asked CTA officials if changing the scope of the program would allow them to hire back laid off workers, or increase or restore service, but he heard that the money would be used to fill current budget gaps. He argues that, contrary to the preliminary findings of the UIC study, reducing or eliminating free senior rides would add only $5 million to $10 million to the CTA’s budget.

According to the RTA, there are currently more than 400,000 seniors enrolled in the free ride program. Before the program started, about 142,000 seniors used a reduced fare program. The RTA commissioned a study by the University of Illinois at Chicago to find out how many seniors were riding the city’s three transit systems, and what it cost the transit systems to provide them with free rides.

A Northwestern University analysis of Census data found approximately 2,500 seniors living in Rogers Park. Of those seniors, about 1,800 would still qualify for free passes. The RTA would use the state’s definition of low income: $28,000 for one person and $37,000 for a family of two.

Palmer was careful Monday not to prejudge the outcome of the study. The RTA, she said, is looking into the idea of an income based fare system for seniors. “I’m not saying that’s our position, and low-income seniors would still ride free,” she said.

Paidock’s group has been through this all before. “There’s been any number of groups come and go,” he said. “We’ve worked with them all.” And though none of his members qualifies for the senior discount just yet, they’re ready to fight again.

“Are we going to go to battle again on this seniors thing?” Paidock asked members at their monthly meeting Monday. The group, it seems, is ready for the fight.