Chicago-area transit agencies' move to the Ventra fare-payment system, which has been pockmarked by extremely long waits for cards in the mail and an activation process that led to the temporary reinstatement of old payment options, could be on the cusp of another rough patch.
While CTA and Pace officials downplayed complaints flooding social media websites as well as your Getting Around reporter's inbox and, presumably, CTA and Pace customer service hotlines, some Ventra customers say they are discovering from their Ventra online accounts that they've been double-, triple- or even quadruple-charged for fares because of misbehaving Ventra readers on CTA and Pace buses and at CTA rail turnstiles.
CTA and Pace say they are still trying to get a handle on the depth of problems with Ventra two months into its introduction, and the Ventra contractor is working to complete software fixes and will be held accountable, transit officials vow.
"Our team of analysts is currently combing through a massive amount of data to determine all issues with the system and understand them better and make sure they are addressed," CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said Friday.
Many riders who tapped their Ventra cards and failed to receive a "Go" signal on the screen tapped again, either on their own or because transit personnel told them to, until the "Go" message flashed, unaware that in some cases multiple charges were being racked up.
"There has been a massive line going through the turnstiles at Clark and Lake the past couple days," commuter Scott Lewis said in an email to Getting Around. "When I got to the front, I discovered why: It's very hard to get the card to work. A CTA employee often has to help, and they often have trouble as well."
Commuter Don Davis, who said he hasn't been able to register his Ventra card or link it to his credit card, observed: "Every day when I ride the 'L,' I see people frustrated by trying to get through the turnstile with the Ventra card. This is a major fiasco."
Ventra customers are at times treated to free rides because Ventra readers are out of service or there is a delay for the readers to reset between each fare payment. (One benefit of the contactless Ventra card was supposed to be quicker boarding.)
The snag has resulted in bus drivers or rail customer assistants waving through riders after their payments failed to register, according to commuters as well as observations and experiences by your transit-riding Getting Around reporter.
"The first problem is that at the train stations there always seems to be one or two Ventra sensors that don't work, which causes a long line at rush hour," said Stephen Fang, of Chicago, a daily CTA bus and Blue Line rider.
"Then you don't always get through on your first swipe so what do you do? Swipe again. I got charged an extra $2.25 on my second swipe, which shows in Ventra's computer system that it occurred only 7 seconds later than my first swipe," said Fang, 38, who works in trading at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade.
Exacerbating the problem, the extra charge caused his card balance to go negative, he said.
"The next morning, when I told the CTA representative at the Damen station, she accused me of using my card (as a pass-back) for other people. Unbelievable," he said.
Transit officials said software and data communications glitches — some because of Ventra and others caused by infrastructure still in use from the old fare-collection system — are the source of apparent malfunctions in the Ventra readers at rail turnstiles and onboard CTA and Pace buses.
The two transit agencies say they are analyzing data and waiting for Ventra contractor Cubic Transportation Systems Inc. to upgrade the software.
Meanwhile, while many riders use words like "disaster" and "fiasco" to describe the Ventra rollout, the CTA and Pace insist it's too early to judge how well the fare payment system is working.
Asked how much longer it will take to get a grip on Ventra's performance, spokeswoman Chase could not say.
"Keep in mind how early we are into this transition and that it has taken a bit of time to get some meaningful data to examine," Chase said.
Cubic, which is being paid $454 million to implement and manage Ventra, refers all media inquiries to the CTA.
On the old fare-collection system that is being retired Dec. 15, the average number of errors is about 1,700 a month at rail turnstiles and about 1,250 a month on bus fare boxes, Chase said.