All aboard: CTA, Pace start big Ventra card rollout Monday

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.

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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