By Jon Hilkevitch
7:21 AM CDT, October 4, 2013
The new Ventra fare-payment system, which one month into a four-month transition continues to be a source of angst for many Chicago-area transit commuters, accounts for 1 in 3 CTA rides, officials said Thursday.
But transit officials are set to give the remaining majority the first in a series of big nudges starting Monday, when riders no longer will be able to reload value onto Chicago Cards.
And judging by comments from current Ventra customers, people adopting the contactless payment system as a result could be in for a bumpy ride.
"If one calls the toll-free number shown on your useless Ventra brochure, one winds up in an endless loop of pressing 3 over and over again, only to hear the same useless automated information repeated," commuter Mary Gerace of Westchester said in an email to CTA customer service. "Your employees at the train stations are confused and uninformed. Fix this mess NOW."
Also starting Monday, magnetic stripe transit cards and stored value transit cards will no longer be available to buy and multiday passes will be harder to find.
The CTA did give a little ground Thursday in response to an unspecified number of customers still waiting for Ventra cards to arrive in the mail. Chicago Card Plus customers who haven't yet activated their Ventra accounts can continue to have money automatically loaded from bank accounts or credit and debit cards onto their Plus accounts until they receive their Ventra card and activate it, CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said.
The next date riders should be mindful of is Nov. 14. That's the last day to use both Chicago Cards and Chicago Card Plus cards to board trains and buses, officials said.
The CTA and Pace, which also has adopted the payment system, are advising customers to spend down balances. Any balances remaining on Nov. 15 can be transferred to Ventra accounts but only through March 31, after which any value on the cards will be forfeited, officials said.
Chicago Card customers who registered their cards and still are waiting to receive Ventra cards in the mail might need to add money to the cards before the Monday deadline, but not more than they will use over the next six weeks, transit officials advised.
Riders also will have a hard time finding non-Ventra transit card vending machines beginning next week. Fewer machines will be at CTA rail stations and all machines will be gone by Nov. 15, officials said. It means that, as of that date, riders won't be able to add money to stored value cards or buy multiday passes, except by loading the passes onto Ventra cards.
Starting Dec. 15, no type of magnetic stripe card will be usable and Pace will stop accepting 10-ride tickets.
The shift to Ventra, which started in late August for students and Sept. 9 for the general public, has been a rough experience for many CTA and Pace customers, whose frustrations include:
•Problems while attempting to activate or load money onto Ventra cards, including incorrect balances posted on customers' accounts online at ventrachicago.com.
•Languishing on hold on the Ventra customer service line and, in many cases, getting disconnected.
•Still waiting to receive a Ventra card weeks after getting emails promising the new card is in the mail.
•Difficulty finding Ventra cards for sale, as was promised by now, at Walgreens and other retail outlets. (Many CVS and Jewel-Osco stores have been selling the cards since early September.)
•Overcharges when Ventra cards are placed on bus or rail turnstile Ventra reader devices.
"For months I have felt that the CTA was unfairly attacked and criticized for the new Ventra system," CTA commuter Brian Hopkins told the Tribune in an email Thursday. "That's all changed in my mind. Now I think the media aren't being hard enough on them for this error-filled, delayed, poorly planned Ventra rollout.''
Rider Clarence Smith reported to Ventra customer service that he received his Ventra card last week and has had problems ever since trying to register it.
"After several attempts I called the customer service number and waited on hold for 20 minutes before being disconnected," Smith said in an email he sent Thursday to Ventra and copied to the Tribune. "I tried phoning a second time with the same results. I tried a third time and left a voice mail with my phone number. Guess what? No one has returned my call."
Chase, the CTA spokeswoman, said Ventra has added staff to its customer service call centers to reduce wait times. She said Ventra customers should use the self-service phone options unless they specifically need to speak with a customer service representative.
CTA and Pace officials are reiterating their position, first voiced in late August, that problems were anticipated with such a major change and that the transition is going "fairly smoothly overall" with only "a handful of issues."
CTA and Pace officials failed to provide data documenting the number of Ventra complaints.
"The rollout is continuing," the CTA's Chase said. About 899,000 Ventra cards have been issued and they have been tapped against readers 10 million times, she said.
Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot said Pace has received numerous complaints from customers who haven't been able to get through to Ventra customer service on the phone.
"The best thing for people to do is to refer these questions directly to Ventra," Wilmot said.
The CTA signed a $454 million contract in 2011 with California-based Cubic Transportation Systems Inc. to create and manage the new fare-collection system that features contactless Ventra cards to replace older fare card technology. Pace subsequently joined the program, while Metra is planning to test other technologies.
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