Getting Around: Ventra rollout may take some users for a ride

Fare confusion could cost CTA riders an extra 75 cents per trip

CTA moves to the Ventra regional transit fare-payment system starting Monday among some university students. (WGN-TV)

If given the option, would you pay $2.25 or $3 to ride a CTA train?

It's not a silly question. As the CTA moves to the Ventra regional transit fare-payment system — starting Monday among some university students — the agency will temporarily have one foot still in the current, soon-to-be-retired fare-collection program.

It's a formula for confusion among some riders, particularly low-income individuals who tend to pay their fares using cash, as well as infrequent CTA riders who include out-of-town visitors and suburbanites making day trips to Chicago.

Standing alongside the regular CTA fare card vending machines in rail stations are shiny new Ventra vending machines that will be activated in a few weeks. Both systems will operate until the old machines are phased out over the next couple of months.

The base CTA rail fare is $2.25. But if a cash-payer who doesn't understand the difference between the two systems does "eeny, meeny, miny, moe" and lands on the Ventra machine to purchase a single-ride ticket, the price is $3.

The $3 fare — 33 percent higher than the base fare — includes a 50-cent service charge and a 25-cent transfer, which is issued regardless of whether the customer needs to transfer.

However, if "moe'' directs the cash customer to use a regular CTA fare card vending machine, the same train ride costs — cha-ching! — only $2.25.

The single-ride cash rail fare will be $3 across the board starting in January, officials said. Customers using a Ventra transit card will pay $2.25.

For the time being, the CTA promises to have plenty of customer assistants on duty to help riders navigate the fare-payment learning curve. But with the CTA heavily promoting Ventra, and given the tendency of many CTA customer assistants to hide from the public or catch naps in the long-closed ticket booths at the rail stations, please, CTA, forgive your Getting Around reporter for being a bit leery of how smooth the Ventra rollout is likely to be.

Ventra will be used on the CTA and Pace suburban bus. It will replace existing fare cards, including the Chicago Card and the Chicago Card Plus and magnetic-stripe fare cards. Daily and multiday passes also will be incorporated into the Ventra system, officials said.

Reduced-fare cards that are used by senior citizens, disabled individuals and students, as well as free-ride cards for low-income seniors and disabled and ADA paratransit cards will be replaced by Ventra versions of those cards under a program administered by the Regional Transportation Authority. The RTA, which oversees the CTA, Pace and Metra, will begin mailing new permits in September, and all customers should receive them by Thanksgiving, officials said. Current customers do not need to submit an application or have a new photo taken, officials said.

Ventra essentially gets the CTA and Pace out of the banking business that is related to fare collection. Those duties will be taken over by First Data Corp., which is working with Cubic Transportation Systems Inc. in managing Ventra under a $454 million CTA contract.

Ventra is projected to save the CTA $50 million over 10 years and serve as the model for implementing a universal fare-collection system by 2015 that will be used on CTA, Pace and Metra.

Your Getting Around reporter has heard from many CTA and Pace customers who have questions about how Ventra will work. Both agencies are conducting informational campaigns, but a recent CTA email sent to Chicago Card Plus customers to verify their address for shipment of Ventra cards did not offer any useful details.

"The email did not provide specific information about what day they will mail out the Ventra card. There were no instructions and it really didn't explain whether my credit card will be automatically linked to the Ventra account or if I have to take steps to link it,'' said Adam Kerman, who is a member of Pace's Citizens Advisory Board.

"There were no instructions about how to use the Ventra card,'' Kerman added. "You really would think they would be bombarding me with useful information on an ongoing basis.''

Here is a brief rundown addressing some of the most frequently asked questions received by Getting Around.

Q: When will Ventra start?

A: College students enrolled in U-Pass are scheduled to receive their new cards this week. Chicago Public Schools students will receive their reduced-fare Ventra cards before Aug. 26, the first day of school, officials said.

Chicago Card customers who registered their cards and Chicago Card Plus customers should have already received an email to confirm their mailing address. If not, call 888-YOUR-CTA. Customers who have validated their addresses will begin receiving Ventra cards and informational packets Aug. 19, officials said. The cards require activation, which can be done by calling 877-NOW-VENTRA. The cards can then be used as soon as old balances from Chicago Cards are transferred or money is loaded onto the Ventra cards at ventrachicago.com, officials said.

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