Mayor Rahm Emanuel defends the switch to the CTA's new Ventra fare card system despite problems.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday defended the switch to the CTA's new Ventra fare card system despite major problems with the program's rollout.

Difficulties have abounded, from riders having trouble obtaining Ventra cards to getting overcharged for rides on trains and buses. The card readers also in some cases have failed to recognize the cards, forcing CTA employees to let riders board buses and trains for free.

The mayor disputed the notion that the Ventra switch has been a debacle.

"I don't — you can use whatever word you want," Emanuel said. "First of all, 55 percent of people are using it."

The comments came the day after CTA President Forrest Claypool and an executive from California-based Cubic Transportation Systems Inc. told business leaders they couldn't say when Ventra cards will begin functioning properly. Emanuel said Cubic won't get paid until the system works smoothly.

"The fact is, it's not working the way it needs to work, and they won't get paid until it does do that," Emanuel said. "And that means holding them accountable and making sure that their feet are being held to the fire, which is exactly what Forrest is doing."

Richard Wunderle, who heads North American operations for Cubic, told the City Club of Chicago on Tuesday he "can't give you really a best guess" when the Ventra cards would work.

Claypool told the audience the CTA won't start paying 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 99 percent of Ventra equipment is functioning.

"We are in the business of what I call customer service, and Cubic has not done their job yet," Emanuel said Wednesday.

jebyrne@tribune.com

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