8:10 PM CDT, September 8, 2013
The CTA and Pace on Monday will make their big rollout of a next-generation fare-payment system while beginning to phase out transit cards that have provided many years of dependable service but are showing signs of age.
Through early next year, the contactless Ventra card will replace all of the existing paper and plastic fare cards introduced over the last 20 years whose usage has become second nature to Chicago-area commuters.
Ventra cards will go on sale Monday at Ventra vending machines, located mostly in CTA rail stations, and at hundreds of retail locations, including CVS, Jewel-Osco and Walgreens stores, transit officials said. The cost to purchase a Ventra card is $5; if the owner registers the Ventra card, the $5 is credited back to the card for use in paying transit fares.
Transit riders can go online to ventrachicago.com and enter their ZIP code to find retailers selling Ventra cards in their area, officials said. They can also use that website or call 877-669-8368 to obtain Ventra cards.
In addition to adding money to the Ventra cards for single rides, transit customers who use multiday passes will be able to load those onto the Ventra card as well.
To pay a fare using a Ventra card, riders must tap the card on the bottom portion of the rectangular Ventra fare readers on rail station turnstiles and mounted on the yellow handrail at bus entry doors. A "Go" light will signal that the fare has been paid. If a problem occurs, a "Stop" message will flash and transit personnel will offer assistance, officials said.
Transit riders who don't own a Ventra card — and perhaps aren't sure whether they want one — will continue to pay fares using the transit cards they already have.
"Riders don't need a Ventra card to board buses and trains on Monday morning. Ventra and the existing system will run in parallel" for several months, Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot said.
In fact, owners of contactless credit and debit cards, which like a Ventra card contain radio frequency identification technology, can permanently forgo obtaining a Ventra card and simply tap their contactless credit or debit card on the Ventra reader on buses and at CTA rail stations and pay the same fare. Contactless cards are identified by a wave symbol on the cards.
Eventually, Chicago-area commuters will have the added option to pay their transit fares with their smartphones. Metra plans a pilot project within a year, officials said.
The CTA and its Ventra partners are offering Ventra transit card customers the option to also open a separate Ventra prepaid debit MasterCard account. The MasterCard account is marketed as a convenience, allowing commuters to pay their CTA and Pace fares and make retail purchases all with the same card.
But prepaid debit card accounts generally carry an assortment of service fees and convenience charges — including, in Ventra's case, a charge of up to $4.95 per transaction to reload the optional debit account with cash, officials said. Consumer watchdogs advise that there are better offerings in the marketplace, such as an affordable checking account, than prepaid debit cards.
As part of the transition to Ventra, the CTA will stop issuing new Chicago Cards on Monday, following a cutoff of new Chicago Card Plus cards in August. Online orders of magnetic stripe transit cards also stop Monday, officials said.
Other key dates for the transition to Ventra will occur each month through next March. They include a Nov. 15 stop date for using either version of the Chicago Card, although balances remaining on the cards can be transferred to the Ventra card through March.
Also on Nov. 15, all of the current system's transit card vending machines will have been removed from rail stations and only Ventra machines will be available. The upshot will be that riders using cash to purchase rail fares will pay $3, instead of the regular $2.25 fare, for a single-ride paper ticket.
Meanwhile, Metra Link-Up and Plus Bus customers who ride the CTA or Pace will continue to receive magnetic stripe Link-Up and Plus Bus cards for October and November, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said. In December, Link-Up and Plus Bus customers will start to receive new Ventra Link-Up and Plus Bus cards.
Senior citizens and disabled individuals who participate in the reduced-fare program, and eligible low-income individuals who ride buses and trains for free, will receive Ventra reduced-fare or ride-free cards in the mail between late September and mid-November, according to the Regional Transportation Authority. In the meantime, the existing cards should continue to be used, RTA officials said.
For many riders whom your Getting Around reporter has heard from, the Ventra system seems complicated and confusing. The odd Ventra brand name itself, dreamed up for Chicago based on the Latin term for "wind," doesn't yet roll off a Chi-Town tongue with the hometown familiarity of the long-popular Chicago Card.
But CTA officials report increased cases of the aging Chicago Card technology failing. The Chicago Card chip manufacturer will stop production next year, the CTA said. Meanwhile, radio-frequency identification cards are taking hold of the credit/debit card marketplace and being integrated into transit fare-collection systems worldwide.
The switch to Ventra marks the first time that third-party businesses will control the sale and management of Chicago-area transit fare card systems, relieving the CTA and Pace of those banking functions and allowing transit officials to sharpen their focus on delivering safe, on-time, high-quality service.
The Ventra system is projected to save the CTA $50 million over 10 years, as opposed to developing and operating a new fare-collection system in-house, CTA President Forrest Claypool has said. The $5 million in annual savings are expected even after the CTA finishes paying $454 million to Cubic Transportation Systems Inc. for creating and managing the Ventra system, Claypool said.
In addition, under the Cubic contract, the CTA is guaranteed a minimum half-million dollars a year in nonfarebox revenue. Some of it will be paid by Ventra debit account customers who are assessed fees. For instance, the CTA will receive a portion of the $2 monthly inactivity fee that Ventra MasterCard customers will be charged if they don't use their retail card at least once over an 18-month period. The prepaid debit account program will be administered by First Data Corp.
Chicago Card customers have been among the initial Ventra guinea pigs in recent weeks. More than 100,000 Ventra cards are already in use and have been tapped 1.3 million times against Ventra fare-collection readers on buses and at rail station turnstiles, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said.
He said there have been "a handful of minor issues that affected a limited number of customers."
Some Ventra customers have complained that the cards are recording incorrect balances.
"How do I have negative dollars on my Ventra card when I just put $5 on it and I only used it once? I do not like this new system," commuter Lauren Bennett tweeted in late August.
But Ayesha Patel gave Ventra a thumbs-up, if only for a dubious reason. "Got on the bus for free because Ventra isn't working," Patel tweeted Wednesday.
If you are among the thousands of riders who have responded to an email from Ventra seeking verification of your mailing address, but still haven't received a Ventra card, be patient, transit officials urge.
About 30,000 Ventra cards are in the mail, and plans call for mailing about 15,000 cards per day, Steele said Friday, speaking on behalf of Cubic, which is the primary Ventra contractor.
CTA officials acknowledge that foreseen and unforeseen bugs are likely during Ventra's full implementation, as is common with any new technology.
Overall, the limited rollout has gone smoothly, Steele said.
"In a system of this size and with a change of this magnitude, there is potential for small issues to arise," he said. "We thank our customers for their patience during this transition."
At the start of the Ventra launch in late August, which involved a student reduced-fare version of the Ventra card, the Ventra system had no problem collecting payments from customers' credit cards when online orders were placed to load money on the Ventra cards. But in some cases it took up to a day for the transactions to electronically post to the cards so they could be used to pay bus and train fares, students and parents complained.
CTA and Cubic officials said those "latency issues" have been resolved, and customers adding value to Ventra cards should not experience delays.
Monday's much broader implementation may provide a more comprehensive test of Ventra's electronic transaction infrastructure.
Steele said transit officials are confident that the system has the resources and the capacity to quickly manage whatever volume of transactions will be attempted Monday. But commuters may not rush to Ventra, since the old system is still in place.
"We don't anticipate a deluge of customers on day one," Steele said.
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