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Ventra's transit benefits program also a problem

Hidden fees, foul-ups add to other problems with CTA's fare system

Jon Hilkevitch

Getting Around

November 18, 2013

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As the nation's second-largest transit system struggles to debug the unruly Ventra fare-payment system, another apparent Ventra glitch is also testing the patience of some customers.

The culprit this time is the Chicago Transit Authority's Ventra transit benefit program, which is designed to stretch the dollars that commuters spend to buy transit fares by using pretax deductions from their paychecks.

CTA rider Zeb Nelson and his wife were initially pleased that their Chicago Card Plus accounts were successfully transferred over to the new Ventra system. But when Nelson's wife purchased a CTA 30-day pass through the transit benefit program, Ventra charged her for two passes, Nelson said.

"They took $100 from her check for one 30-day pass and then another $100 charged to our credit card for a second 30-day pass,'' Nelson said. "Clearly one person doesn't need two 30-day passes active at a time.''

The CTA says it's looking into the Nelsons' issue. The problem appears to be a variation of the double-charging problem that some Ventra transit card customers say happened to them when they tapped their cards on Ventra fare readers on buses and on turnstiles at CTA rail stations.

At the same time, several other issues, including some hidden extra costs, have come to light as the CTA and its contractor continue to try to smooth out bugs that have plagued the new fare card system.

One problem emerged with the CTA Ventra transit benefit program last week. The administrators for some companies told the Tribune that when they used their company's secure sign-in information to log on to the Ventra transit benefit website, account information for other companies appeared.

"We have seen three different companies so far,'' the administrator for one Chicago-based firm said. "It seems a different company is displayed every time our account manager logs in. What's worse is he is able to edit the other company's contact information.''

Officials at the CTA and Cubic Transportation Systems Inc., which is the Ventra contractor, said Cubic was resolving the problem and that a preliminary assessment did not indicate that employer or employee information was compromised.

The Regional Transportation Authority also offers a transit benefit program. Both the RTA's and the CTA Ventra transit benefit programs can save commuters hundreds of dollars annually by shielding from taxes the income that employees set aside for transit. Besides lowering an employee's total taxable income, employers also receive tax deductions.

But your Getting Around reporter discovered, after reading the fine print in the contract for the CTA Ventra transit benefit program, that it contains an extra cost — monthly "load fees'' — that could be handed down to consumers.

The load fees are on top of the amount transit benefit customers already pay for their transit passes. They also are in addition to the processing fees (typically $1 to $1.50 a month) charged by the third-party administrators that manage the transit benefit program for participating employers.

WageWorks, ADP, Edenred and other companies sell their services as third-party administrators to employers to handle the tax paperwork, distribution of transit passes and other details of the transit benefit program.

Unlike the CTA Ventra product, the RTA program does not contain the load fees, although the RTA does charge participants a $1.50 per month administrative fee. The RTA transit benefit program is geared toward smaller companies with fewer employees than at major corporations.

The CTA Ventra transit benefit load fee is $1.50, and it is charged to the third-party administrator every time money is loaded on to an employee's account from a payroll deduction. The third-party administrator has the option to pass along the cost to employers, who can shift all or a portion of the load fee to employees.

In the first year of the CTA Ventra transit benefit program, the entire $1.50 load fee will be waived so long as the employee loads a minimum of $10 to the account each month, according to the contract.

In later years, the amount of the load fee will depend on whether the third-party administrator meets goals stated in the contract to increase participation in the program.

"This results in a complete offset of the load fee (during the first year),'' said CTA spokesman Steve Mayberry. "Also, there is no cost to the third-party administrators if they grow their population in year two.''

Officials at the RTA, which manages the transit benefit program for Metra and Pace, said the CTA Ventra fee structure is too complicated and a bad policy to impose on employers who are encouraging their workers to ride public transit instead of drive. The RTA has opposed the CTA's move to run its own independent transit benefit program.

"The goal of the transit benefit program is to attract ridership by decreasing the cost of using public transit,'' said RTA Executive Director Joseph Costello. "Any additional fees imposed by CTA or Cubic will reduce the benefit of this program.''

The RTA transit benefit program has about 2,000 employers and about 50,000 employees enrolled. Third-party administrators in the RTA program are subject to paying the $1.50 CTA Ventra load fee.

The transit benefit program began in 1999 in the Chicago area. The CTA participated in the RTA program until last year. About 1,100 employers representing 55,000 employees are enrolled in the CTA Ventra transit benefit program, Mayberry said.

Pace accepts companies that participate in either the RTA or CTA Ventra programs, Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot said.

RTA spokeswoman Susan Massel charged that the CTA Ventra load fees are "purely a penalty to allow Cubic and CTA to collect more money."

"It is not CTA's role to punish private corporations if they don't increase their business,'' she said.

Massel said the CTA instead should focus on fixing Ventra's many problems and providing quality service that promotes ridership growth.

A new wrinkle to the RTA transit benefit program offers participants the option to load their pretax paycheck deductions onto an RTA prepaid MasterCard. The card can be used to purchase transit fares on the CTA, Metra, Pace, South Shore Line, Amtrak and Chicago Water Taxis.

The RTA MasterCard can be used at Ventra fare readers to ride CTA and Pace and to purchase fares at sales windows, ticket vending machines and online transit purchases. It cannot be used for general retail purchases.

A CTA Ventra prepaid debit MasterCard that the CTA is offering as a separate account on its Ventra transit card can be used for any kind of retail purchases. Users of the optional CTA Ventra MasterCard are subject to various customer service charges and convenience fees.

Under Internal Revenue Service rules, transit riders can set aside up to $245 per month in pretax income in the transit benefit program. But the maximum limit will be reduced to $130 per month in 2014 unless Congress passes new legislation before Dec. 31.

The monthly pretax spending limit for parking will increase from $245 to $250 a month in 2014. The parking rules are not subject to congressional action.

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.