By Jon Hilkevitch
8:04 PM CDT, July 29, 2013
Chicago-area transit commuters are poised to take a big step toward a regional fare card next month, when Ventra begins rolling out for CTA and Pace customers, officials announced Monday.
The new transit fare-collection system will be phased in by the middle of September, with Chicago Card customers, college students registered in the U-Pass program and Chicago schoolchildren will get a head start beginning in August, officials said.
Most Ventra customers will also have the option to sign up for a separate Ventra prepaid debit MasterCard account. The dual transit-debit card will allow commuters to pay their bus and train fares out of the transit account while making retail purchases on the MasterCard account.
CTA officials have hailed the dual transit-debit card option as a convenience for customers, and as an especially good opportunity for low-income individuals who do not have bank accounts. But as the Tribune has reported, prepaid debit cards carry an assortment of customer service fees and other charges that can quickly pile up costs, and the Ventra prepaid debit MasterCard is no different.
The prepaid debit account will not be offered to students, senior citizens registered in the reduced-fare program or low-income seniors and disabled individuals eligible for free transit rides, officials said.
In September, the Regional Transportation Authority will begin issuing new reduced-fare, free-ride and paratransit permits to seniors and people with disabilities enrolled in those programs, officials said.
Ventra marks the transition to an open-fare system that offers riders the convenience to use a single-fare card, or their personal credit or debit card if it has contactless technology, to pay fares on CTA and Pace, and possibly Metra in the future.
The three transit agencies face a 2015 deadline to introduce a universal fare-collection system aimed at creating a more seamless travel experience for riders switching between the separately operated transit systems, officials said. Ventra is intended to serve as the model, although it’s envisioned that the universal system will eventually allow commuters to use smartphones to pay fares on buses and trains.
The Ventra rollout will be completed in segments geared toward specific customers.
Starting on Aug. 5, participating college students will begin receiving U-PASS cards coded for the Ventra system, officials said.
Chicago Public Schools students will receive their Ventra reduced-fare transit cards during school orientation before Aug. 26, the first day of school, officials said.
The CTA has sent emails to Chicago Card Plus and Chicago Card registered customers to confirm their mailing addresses in order to send them Ventra cards by mail, starting Aug. 19, officials said.
Riders can begin using Ventra after activating their cards, by calling 877-699-8368.
Chicago Card Plus customers’ balances or passes will be automatically transferred to the Ventra system upon activation of Ventra cards, officials said.
Customers who received their Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus through pretax transit benefit programs from their employers will begin receiving notification of their transition to Ventra starting in September, officials said.
All other CTA and Pace customers will be able to use Ventra starting Sept. 9, when Ventra cards will be sold at retail locations and at rail stations.
Between Aug. 5 and Sept. 9, Ventra machines will be available only to reload Ventra value. Customers will not be able to obtain new Ventra cards until Sept. 9, officials said.
CTA and Pace customers are advised to spend down fare balances on current fare media, which will be phased out through early 2014.
Customers who pay with magnetic-stripe fare cards and Chicago Card customers who did not register their cards will still be able to transfer balances to their Ventra cards at select locations starting in September and throughout the transition to Ventra, officials said.
The Ventra card has a $5 purchase cost, which is credited back to the card for transit use if the card owner registers it online or by phone, officials said.
A limited number of Ventra cards will be distributed free of charge at upcoming promotional events, CTA officials said.
A Ventra customer service center is scheduled to open Aug. 12 at 165 N. Jefferson St., Chicago. Sales of Ventra cards at that location will begin Sept. 9, officials said.
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