March 18, 2013
The Chicago Transit Authority soon will launch a new fare-payment system that affects almost every CTA and Pace rider, although transit officials have yet to fully explain how it will work.
Poor communications with customers is something the CTA has nearly down to a science, if recent developments are any sign. The transit agency didn't make any adjustments based on riders' concerns before eliminating some bus routes in December, it increased fares on all CTA passes in January, and its board voted last week to impose new fees to help cover the costs of the new half-billion-dollar fare system called Ventra.
CTA officials said they plan to do extensive "public outreach" before the new system is activated sometime this summer, including by offering to switch current Chicago Card Plus users to the new Ventra card.
Based on many emails and calls from readers and postings on social media, your Getting Around reporter believes CTA riders don't want to wait for answers to their questions. Accompanying today's column is a chart intended to serve as a primer on transitioning from today's fare-payment structure to the new one. Pace riders will have to make similar changes from their fare cards. Information is also available at ventrachicago.com.
The Ventra card's function will be similar to the Chicago Card, with the added option to create a separate retail account that allows the card owner to make purchases anywhere MasterCard is accepted, officials said.
The cost of a Ventra card will be $5, which is then credited toward transit fares if the card is registered within 90 days of purchase, officials said.
The move to Ventra will graduate from Chicago Card users to other customers. About 550,000 senior citizens, people with disabilities and others who pay reduced fares or ride for free will be the last to switch — to a photo identification version of the Ventra card, according to the Regional Transportation Authority. Those cards will be exempt from the $5 acquisition fee, but they also won't offer a separate retail account, officials said.
The CTA hasn't given specific dates or locations for the outreach. It clearly needs more time to figure out some of the details on a fare system that the CTA board approved back in 2011 and that it rolled out with the Ventra branding strategy in September.
Illustrating the confusion at CTA headquarters, President Forrest Claypool and revenue director Eric Reese crossed wires at last week's meeting over whether some free Ventra cards will be handed out at informational events about Ventra to inspire riders to make the transition. Reese clearly stated some free cards will be distributed; Claypool later said they won't be.
And despite a deluge of rider concerns and questions posted on the CTA's Twitter account and on other social media sites, Claypool insisted he doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.
"I think there has been a perception that it's more complicated than it is," said Claypool, who has said he rides the CTA occasionally, when it fits his schedule.
"In a matter of minutes you can transfer from the old system to the new system at no cost. You pay the same fares as before. It's as simple as that," he said.
In reality, there are many twists and turns. For example, as previously reported here, CTA train riders who buy a single-ride ticket will see their fares rise to $3 from $2.25 under the new system — a 33 percent increase.
Claypool said the $3 fare is necessary to discourage people from continuing to buy single-ride disposable tickets because they are overly expensive to produce.
"Getting away from that disposable pattern that people are accustomed to represents a key component of the new structure," he said. "You can still use cash to reload your Ventra card" and pay $2.25 on rail to avoid paying $3.
"We're the CTA. We take a simple train fare and turn it into a complex financial transaction," says a post on CTA's Twitter feed, tweeted by someone who identifies as a CTA rider named Jorly. "& the train ride sucks."
CTA spokesman Brian Steele said the agency must "assuage some of the concerns" before completely phasing out current CTA fare cards in 2014.
"We still have more work to do to get word out about Ventra," Steele said.
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