Ventra's costs put nonprofits in a bind

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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