By Jon Hilkevitch
7:15 AM CST, November 6, 2013
The top corporate official representing the publicly maligned Ventra fare-collection system traveled to Chicago on Tuesday to apologize for “unacceptable’’ technical and customer service problems that have cost CTA riders time and money.
He also offered that his company was caught flat-footed because it failed to anticipate how quickly commuters would switch from old fare cards to Ventra.
But Richard Wunderle, who heads North American operations for California-based Cubic Transportation Systems, Inc., couldn’t answer the $454 million question (the price of the Ventra contract): When will Ventra function properly?
“I can’t give you really a best guess. We’re analyzing the data,’’ Wunderle told reporters after CTA President Forrest Claypool brought the Cubic boss to the City Club of Chicago to take some of the heat.
Claypool told the audience of business leaders that Cubic hasn’t been paid a nickel and the CTA won’t write a check on the $454 million contract until three conditions are met: Wait times on Ventra’s customer hotline are under five minutes to speak with an operator; Ventra fare readers on buses and at rail turnstiles process transactions in 2.5 seconds or less, 99 percent of the time; and that 99 percent of Ventra equipment is functioning.
Claypool said he’s hopeful Cubic is getting close to those marks, but current transit cards will continue to be accepted in the meantime.
The CTA boss was noncommittal regarding whether the transit agency would go after Cubic to recoup lost revenue from uncollected fares due to Ventra malfunctions. Riders, especially on buses, say they have been treated to free rides because the Ventra equipment is often out of order.
“It will be up to the lawyers to review,’’ Claypool said. He added the CTA doesn’t know how much money has been lost. But he said uncollected fares, which occur in up to 5 percent of Ventra transactions, represent “an unacceptably high number of instances. … We will look at it, we will quantify it and will work with our lawyers.’’
The CTA did receive a first bill from Cubic, a $245,000 invoice for September fare transactions, but it will not be paid until the performance goals are met, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said.
Wunderle said any riders who believe they have been overcharged for fares or who weren’t properly credited for deposits to their Ventra accounts, should contact customer service.
“We are 100 percent accountable for mischarges or refunds. We do this everyday. We process them and we will continue to process anything that’s inaccurate,’’ he vowed.
In early October, Claypool ordered Cubic to triple its staffing at its customer service centers to reduce excessively long wait times. Beyond those 300 agents, additional operators are being added this week to attain the goal of wait times topping out at five minutes, the CTA president said Tuesday.
Ventra has been plagued by a raft of serious setbacks since it was introduced in late August, for tasks as basic as delivering the new transit cards to CTA and Pace customers. Once thousands of customers finally received their Ventra cards in the mail, many encountered difficulties activating them.
There were also long waits between the time customers loaded money onto the cards and when Ventra accounts actually displayed the value, so that fares could be paid.
And once the new cards were put to use on buses and trains, some customers discovered they were being overcharged.
Cubic is making software upgrades by next weekend that will prevent multiple fares from being charged against a Ventra card for a single ride, said Dave Lapczynski, a Cubic senior vice president who is program director on the Ventra project.
The CTA had planned on Nov. 15 to stop accepting Chicago Cards and Chicago Card Plus cards; to remove non-Ventra transit card vending machines from CTA rail stations so that customers would no long have the ability to reload stored-value transit cards; and to stop selling non-Ventra multi-day passes. And starting Dec. 15, riders were to no longer be able to use any type of magnetic stripe card.
But Claypool hinted in early October that the November and December deadlines might not hold up.
The CTA’s switch to Ventra, which the CTA had promised would be a snap and provide faster boarding on buses and trains, hasn’t lived up to its billing so far, Claypool acknowledged Tuesday.
“Though many people transitioned smoothly (to Ventra), far, far too many were confused and frustrated, through no fault of their own,” Claypool told the City Club. “Our vendor hasn’t fully met our expectations yet, or those of our customers.’’
Wunderle said Cubic has invested $92 million “of our own money’’ on the CTA’s Ventra program and he promised it will get better.
“We are not going away,” Wunderle said. “We have a 10-year contract.”firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter @jhilkevitch
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