Despite cuts in bus and train service and a weak economy, CTA ridership declined less than 1 percent in 2010, transit officials said today.

The transit agency provided 516.9 million rides last year, which was 4.7 million more than projected for the year but 0.8 percent less than during 2009, CTA President Richard Rodriguez said.

“There is reason for encouragement considering the dramatic impact the recession has had throughout the year,’’ Rodriguez said.

Bus ridership declined 4 percent last year, Rodriguez said. The CTA reduced bus service by 18 percent last February to help eliminate a budget deficit.

Rail ridership increased 4.1 percent in 2010, he said. As part of last year’s cuts, rail service was reduced by 9 percent.

Some 70.3 million of the CTA rides taken in the first 11 months of 2010 were provided at no cost to senior citizens and other categories of riders who are covered by a free-rides program initiated by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The total number of free rides over the 11-month period was 2.2 million more than during the first 11 months of 2009, CTA chief financial officer Karen Walker said. But she said the pace of people registering with the Regional Transportation Authority to receive the free-rides cards has slowed. The RTA has issued about 431,000 cards since 2008, officials said.

Free rides cost the CTA, Metra and Pace between $38 million and $116 million in 2009, according to a study commissioned by the RTA. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, concluded that the free rides are financially unsustainable for the transit agencies.

State lawmakers acted on that warning this week by instituting a financial means test. The General Assembly voted to scale back the free-rides program so that only low-income senior citizens and low-income disabled people would be eligible.

If the change is signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn, the RTA would have up to six months to implement the means-testing program change. All other seniors would be eligible for half-fare rides.

It’s projected that the transit system would recoup between $25 million and $30 million annually if the free rides legislation becomes law, the RTA said.

jhilkevitch@tribune.com