March 25, 2013
Springlike weather is arriving late this year, but it's shaping up to be a long, hot summer for the Chicago Transit Authority.
CTA President Forrest Claypool and his team will manage two difficult projects that are already unpopular with many riders — the five-month shutdown of the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line for track-replacement work starting in mid-May, and a new fare-payment system called Ventra that will go into effect for CTA and Pace riders sometime this summer, officials said.
CTA rider Ankit Patel has launched an online petition drive telling Claypool and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, "We don't want the new Ventra CTA system."
The petition states numerous reasons, including the 33 percent increase in the price, to $3 from the current $2.25, of a single-ride disposable rail ticket if riders choose not to use Ventra; and the slew of fees and service charges that accompany a prepaid MasterCard debit account that the CTA will offer many Ventra card customers.
"I have been pretty irritated ever since I started hearing about the Ventra and what it entailed," Patel, 33, told Getting Around in an email interview.
Patel, a software engineer who lives in the city and said he rides the CTA every day, said the CTA should upgrade the current Chicago Card using the contactless technology in the Ventra card, without imposing "the hidden charges" linked to the controversial debit account. The debit account is optional and would be used for retail purchases, not CTA or Pace fares.
"I am a rookie when it comes to this (mounting a petition drive), but I know a lot of people don't like the Ventra initiative," Patel said. "At the end of the day, this deal, like every other Chicago deal, will go through. But the least we can do is express our disappointment."
"Disappointment" is a mild way to describe many CTA riders' feelings about Ventra and how CTA officials appear less than upfront in providing information about the new system, especially the fees linked to the debit account.
For instance, a $2.95 reload fee will be charged each time Ventra debit account customers add money to the account using a personal credit card. No fee will be charged when money is added to the separate transit account, officials said.
Claypool said it's purely riders' prerogative whether to open a debit account for retail purchases, after educating themselves on the fees that will be outlined in literature accompanying each card.
"It's totally up to the riders," Claypool said last week. "Everybody can make their choice as a consumer and what's in their best interests. This is one more option in the marketplace, like the debit card you already have in your wallet today."
In an email he sent to Claypool and Joseph Costello, executive director of the Regional Transportation Authority, Dane Tidwell of Chicago said Ventra seems to be set up to "push Chicago's low-income residents into a debit card that literally nickel-and-dimes them to death."
"Low-income families can't afford to have $20 to $100 sitting on a transit card that they can't use for food, rent, school supplies, etc. That's why they use the floppy cards to begin with," Tidwell said in the email also to Getting Around.
Chicagoan Jacquie Brave compared the Ventra deal, which effectively turns over CTA fare-collection duties to private-sector companies, to the unpopular parking-meter privatization that former Mayor Richard M. Daley pushed through the City Council.
"This is deja vu all over again," Brave said in an email to Getting Around, adding, "The Ventra deal smells just as rotten."
"I am appalled at the cavalier and deer-in-the-headlights attitude of Mr. Claypool, champion good guy. The chicanery and subterfuge that he now owns clearly identifies his cabal as making out like bandits too. Claypool can take off his good-guy cape now, but throwing it over the mud puddle will not keep him clean anymore," Brave said. "If Claypool says he did not read the small print in the Ventra contract, he should change his name to ClayFOOL."
Phil Collins, of Mundelein, who said he rides the CTA only about once a month, doesn't understand why the CTA is switching from a fare system that appears to work well to a completely new system that is costing the CTA $454 million to develop through contractor Cubic Transportation Systems Inc.
"The current cards are easy to use, and the prices are OK,'' Collins said in an email.
He and others wonder how $5 million in annual savings that the CTA projects will result by using Ventra — or $50 million saved over the 10-year operating life of the $454 million contract — is good for the CTA or its customers.
Claypool said the $50 million in savings is a conservative estimate. But more important, it would likely cost the CTA more than $454 million to build a new system from scratch, instead of contracting with low-bidder Cubic, he said.
The current CTA fare-card technology is becoming outmoded, Claypool said. Even though the Chicago Card functions well for many CTA riders, many need to replace their cards more than once because they fail. And next year, the manufacturer of the Chicago Card computer chip will stop producing the chips, Claypool said.
"We essentially would have to invest massive amounts of money to upgrade or rebuild the current system," Claypool said. "The savings is on build versus buy."
But the CTA faces the monumental burden of selling the public on the new fare-payment system because many riders can avoid Ventra entirely by using personal credit or debit cards outfitted with contactless radio-frequency technology.
Officials said no convenience fees or other charges would be incurred if a credit or debit card is used to pay transit fares or to load money or multiday transit passes onto a Ventra account.
Your Getting Around reporter has heard complaints about Ventra from just about every possible transit constituency. In the few months before the Ventra card goes on sale for $5 (with the $5 applied to transit fares if the card owner registers the card within 90 days), the CTA must build confidence and acceptance.
Senior citizens and disabled riders enrolled in the RTA's reduced-fare program won't have the option of adding a MasterCard debit account to their Ventra card, and that rubs some the wrong way.
Senior Eugene Wildman objects to the policy, regardless of whether he would want a debit account.
"On the face of it, not offering the prepaid debit card sounds discriminatory, even punitive," Wildman said in an email.
Contact Getting Around at firstname.lastname@example.org 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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