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

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

Jon Hilkevitch

Getting Around

August 5, 2013

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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.

Ventra cards will go on sale the week of Sept. 9 at Ventra vending machines and at some retail locations. Cards can also be ordered online starting Aug. 12, officials said. The cards would then be mailed in about a week and they can be loaded at Ventra vending machines, officials said.

Q: Are the cards free?

A: Not really. The cards cost $5, but if owners register their cards, the $5 fee is credited toward future transit rides. Registration carries benefits, including the replacement of balances if the cards are lost or stolen.

The CTA is also providing a limited number of totally free Ventra cards at promotional events, but the agency isn't providing details on how to get a free card.

Q: What about balances that are remaining on registered Chicago Cards and Plus cards?

A: Customers' balances or fare products such as passes will be automatically transferred to Ventra upon activation of the new cards, officials said.

Q: Do I need to get a Ventra card?

A: No. Once the general introduction of Ventra begins during the week of Sept. 9, a personal credit or debit card with contactless technology can be used to pay CTA and Pace fares. Contactless cards use a technology called radio-frequency identification for making secure payments. To determine whether your credit or debit card has RFID, look for a symbol on the card that looks like a radio wave. If it doesn't, ask your bank to provide a contactless card. Cash will still be accepted to pay fares on buses and to buy CTA rail single-ride tickets, but why pay 75 cents more per train ride?

Q: Will I still be able to purchase multiday passes?

A: On Ventra, yes. But the CTA will phase out the current multiday pass cards (one-day, three-day, seven-day and 30-day) and sometime in December they will no longer be accepted. Any value on those cards can be transferred to a Ventra card through March 2014, officials said. But CTA officials are advising customers to spend down the balances on the old cards and make the switch to Ventra.

The non-Ventra transit card vending machines will start to disappear from rail stations in September, as will express vending machines and visitor pass machines, officials said. By the end of October, Chicago Card customers will no longer be able to add value to the cards at vending machines, but balances on the cards can still be used or transferred to Ventra.

Q: How will customers using the RTA version of the Ventra card transfer balances from their old cards?

A: The RTA is encouraging reduced-fare and ADA paratransit customers to spend down the balances on their current permits. If that is not possible, those customers can transfer balances to their RTA Ventra cards at select locations starting in September and continuing through next March, officials said.

RTA Ventra customers can contact RTA customer service at 312-913-3110. Applications to the RTA reduced-fare, free rides and ADA paratransit programs can be obtained at the phone number above; at rtachicago.com; or at the RTA customer service center, 165 N. Jefferson St., Chicago.

Q: What about commuters who participate in pretax transit benefits programs?

A: Customers who received their Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus through those programs from their employers will receive notification in September of the switch to Ventra, officials said.

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.