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Some Ventra users report being charged multiple times for a fare

CTA, Pace say they're looking at data to figure out depth of problems as vendor reportedly is working to fix software

Jon Hilkevitch

Getting Around

October 28, 2013

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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.

"We don't yet have comparable numbers for Ventra," Chase said.

Officials at Pace, which provides an average of 124,000 rides on its fixed routes on an average weekday, compared with 1.7 million daily rides on the CTA, said they have figured out the error rate to some degree.

In September, the suburban bus agency recorded 3,675 cases in which a rider was unable to pay because of malfunctioning equipment, versus 3,075 such instances in September 2012, Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot said. That's a 19.5 percent increase this year since Ventra was offered to all Pace and CTA riders Sept. 9, after a phase-in period involving Ventra student passes in late August.

Ventra is being used on about 40 percent of CTA trips and 22 percent of Pace bus trips.

Although CTA and Pace don't yet have a lot of information to disclose, the transit agencies did hint at an answer regarding a question about uncollected Ventra fares that the Tribune has been asking for several weeks: Is Cubic being penalized for lost fare revenue caused by system malfunctions?

"We anticipate there will be penalties for Cubic for September," Chase said. "We're still going through the data and examining the many very technical performance standards that must be met."

Wilmot, the Pace spokesman, said the agency has a process to report lost revenue to Cubic.

"We don't believe this will be a significant amount of money relative to our overall revenue collection, but as a public agency we believe it's very important to have the ability to be reimbursed," Wilmot said.

The rough transition to the new system that CTA President Forrest Claypool and CTA board Chairman Terry Peterson promised would be simple and a joy to use continued last week for customers who said they waited on hold for more than 30 minutes when they called the toll-free Ventra customer service line for help.

Claypool said Oct. 9 that he ordered Cubic to beef up staffing at the service center, from 100 to 300 customer agents, a process that he said would take three weeks. This week marks three weeks.

Fang, the overcharged CTA rider, said Friday that he finally did receive a callback from Ventra about his complaint.

"The lady this time was very nice, and she refunded all the extra fares I got charged for," he said. "I asked her how to avoid this double-tapping/charge issue, and she just said if you find out you get double-charged, call us and we will refund the fare. Obviously there's no solution yet."

Meanwhile, the CTA will soon announce a mail-in program for customers to transfer balances to their Ventra cards from their old, soon-to-expire fare cards, Chase said.

Details are still being worked out, she said. But the mail-in program will be extended to regular-fare and reduced-fare customers, including senior citizens who have card balances they can't use up before Dec. 15, when the old fare cards will no longer be accepted on trains and buses.

The CTA value-transfer offer will be similar to a mail-in program that Pace announced last week for commuters who have unused and unexpired Pace 10-ride Plus tickets (both the regular and reduced-fare versions) and Commuter Club Cards. More information, including a balance-transfer form, is available at pacebus.com/ventra. The deadline for mailing the form is Dec. 31.

The CTA is also holding balance-transfer events. Fare cards eligible for balance transfers include CTA and Pace stored-value magnetic stripe full-fare and reduced-fare cards and Chicago Cards. Chicago Card Plus, period passes, reduced-fare passes, passes sold in bulk and expired fare cards cannot be transferred.

A calendar of the balance-transfer events is at bit.ly/1eUndN5.

More events are planned, Chase said. But turnout has been light — an average attendance of 45 people — at the 21 events held so far.

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.