Ventra's costs put nonprofits in a bind

Chicago groups say they can't absorb higher prices of CTA card switch

Chicago nonprofit groups that distribute transit cards to tens of thousands of impoverished and ailing clients say they will soon face a dilemma created by the CTA's switch to Ventra: Either they'll have to spend more on transit or cut back on the level of transportation provided.

Many Chicago social-service agencies and other nonprofits have for years purchased the familiar magnetic stripe CTA cards to help people who use public transit to apply for jobs, travel to doctor appointments and receive treatment for addictions and disabilities.

The cards, themselves, don't cost anything, and all the money spent on them goes toward transportation costs. 

But many of these budget-conscious agencies say they will be able to offer less of the critical transportation service because of CTA plans to phase out the old-style transit cards as part of its transition to the Ventra fare payment system, which comes with comparatively expensive and inconvenient strings attached. A date for the switchover is expected to be announced in February, CTA officials said.

"We told the CTA that we work with the working poor — people with a lot of challenges in their lives — and that the amount of transportation support we can provide will diminish if we are faced with higher ticket costs," said Larry Fitzpatrick, president and chief executive officer of Employment & Employer Services Inc., which connects businesses and job-seekers in the Chicago area, using government grants.

CTA and city officials say they've met with many groups and are looking for solutions to the problem. Fitzpatrick's perspective is that his agency's concerns "fell on deaf ears."

Without a reprieve, the new choices will be to buy:

•$3 Ventra single-ride paper tickets, representing a 33 percent increase over the $2.25 fare on the CTA rail system and on buses when payment is made with cash.

•Multiday passes, which are used far less by the agencies than are the single-ride tickets they purchase in bulk orders. (There is no price break on bulk sales, either before Ventra or currently.)

•$5 Ventra transit smart cards, which don't suit the needs of many of the agencies and their customers, officials said.

The shortcomings include that to receive $5 in transit credits in exchange for the $5 paid for the Ventra smart card, the user must register the card and include a permanent address, phone number and email address. It's an unlikely scenario for many social service clients, experts said. And if cards are lost, a $5 replacement fee is charged.

"The way Ventra was set up, it's clear that an exception should be made for service providers to avoid the fare increase and the crimp it places on our budgets," Fitzpatrick said.

The nonprofit company, which operates 12 locations in Cook County, spends almost $300,000 annually on public transit fares to help clients, who include public housing residents and laid-off workers, commute between home and work, Fitzpatrick said.

One of his agency's clients, Shirley Haywood, said the CTA bus cards she receives are vital to both her search for a part-time job taking care of children and her training to become a certified nurse assistant.

"It would hurt me bad (to be cut off),'' said Haywood, 41, who received a one-day Ventra pass at the workforce center at 4314 S. Cottage Grove Ave. in Chicago. "I don't have the money to put on the bus card. I wouldn't be able to get back and forth to work, school or home. I would be mad. I would be upset.''

CTA spokesman Brian Steele said the transit agency has met with more than 400 social service agencies and other nonprofit groups since early 2013 and will "continue the dialogue.''

About 230 social service agencies and nonprofit groups in the Chicago area made bulk-sale purchases of Ventra fare products since October, he said, while others are still using the old magnetic stripe cards.

Those agencies have purchased almost 253,000 of the $3 single-ride Ventra tickets, nearly 13,500 Ventra 1-day passes, about 1,000 Ventra 3-day passes and more than 9,600 Ventra 7-day passes, Steele said.

Although the CTA provides more than 100 million free rides annually to low-income senior citizens and disabled individuals and several other constituencies, Steele said, it is CTA policy that "nonprofit agencies pay the same amount for fare media as other CTA customers do.''

"The CTA has not provided fare discounts to nonprofits/social service agencies in the past," he said, "and there have been increases in both fares and pass prices in the past, including 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2012."

He noted that other large U.S. transit agencies also do not offer discounts on their bulk sales to nonprofit groups.

The Cook County Health & Hospitals System, which is the largest health care provider to the low-income population in the Chicago area, will stop buying CTA fare cards for its clients covered by Medicaid, a spokeswoman said.

"In the coming months, the Cook County health system will move toward contracting with a transportation service and likely not use public transportation for CountyCare members," spokeswoman Marisa Kollias said.

CountyCare is the Medicaid program that provides medical coverage for uninsured adults in Cook County, through the federal Affordable Care Act.

Various public service groups said they cannot absorb the higher costs they will face with the Ventra system and still offer the same level of transportation assistance. They said the CTA, despite holding informational meetings with the groups, has not offered viable alternatives.

During a CTA board meeting last spring, several board members expressed concerns that social service agencies would end up paying more under the Ventra system.

During and since that meeting, CTA President Forrest Claypool has disagreed. He dismissed concerns about the higher cost of the $3 paper Ventra ticket, predicting it would be used mostly by tourists.

Claypool's chief planning officer, Rebekah Scheinfeld, who was recently selected to become Chicago's transportation commissioner by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, vowed during the CTA board meeting last spring to work with the nonprofit agencies to keep their transportation costs in check.

But an advocate for workforce and social services agencies said the unresolved situation remains frustrating.

"We are hoping that the CTA is starting to get it more — that $3 is not 'just $3'; that there are administrative issues for an agency to register, distribute, then collect, reload and redistribute 100 or more (of the $5) Ventra cards over and over; and that the cost of replacing lost cards is prohibitive," said Liz Czarnecki, senior policy associate at the Chicago Jobs Council, which helps about 100 agencies.

Advocates for the homeless say transients may show up seeking help only occasionally or even on a onetime basis, likely resulting in the $5 Ventra smart card being thrown away once the money on it has been spent.

While the current single-ride magnetic stripe card is intended to be discarded after being used, the $5 Ventra smart card is designed to be reloaded with transit value and used for years.

In anticipation of the CTA transitioning fully to Ventra, some nonprofits have started buying the single-ride $3 Ventra paper tickets. The 75 cent premium over the $2.25 base fare includes a 50 cent "limited-use fee" to cover processing costs and a 25 cent transfer, regardless of whether the transfer is used within the two-hour window allowed.

"The 50 cent fee is one of the sticking points we talked to the CTA about,'' Czarnecki said. "I would really like to see it waived for nonprofit provider organizations."

Steele, the CTA spokesman, noted that the CTA already makes an accommodation to nonprofits by offering bulk sales of 3-day and 7-day paper tickets, at the regular full price for each pass, $20 and $28, respectively. Paper single-ticket versions of those two passes are not available, although the passes can be loaded onto the $5 plastic Ventra transit smart cards.

The only "discount'' that the CTA offers involves lending a Ventra transit card machine to the nonprofit agencies for use in purchasing paper fare cards and reloading the Ventra smart cards, Steele said. The agencies receive a 1.5 percent commission on each transaction, he said, adding that 25 agencies have signed up to use the machines.

Officials from some of the nonprofit groups said they are beginning to work with their financial supporters and other partners, which include the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, the Chicago Housing Authority and City Colleges of Chicago, to persuade the CTA and the Emanuel administration to ease the financial burden caused by the Ventra program.

They say it will help ease the catch-22 situation in which unemployed individuals don't have the money needed for basic necessities to land a job.

"A lot of times, an employer may be on the fence about hiring an individual if they can't get back and forth to the job," said Corey Person, a business service representative at Employment & Employer Services. "For the past 30 years, we have been able to tell employers that we can offset a prospective employee's transportation costs during the first several weeks by providing bus cards before they receive the first paycheck."

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.

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