Ventra card

The new Ventra card. (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune / August 25, 2013)

It's been more than a year since the CTA began its transition to Ventra, and some social service agencies say they've hit bumps in the road in the move to the new fare payment system.

In a new survey, some agencies report buying fewer fare cards because of the new 50-cent processing fee for single-ride and multiday Ventra tickets; that means fewer lower-income residents are getting the help they need to get to job interviews or settle into new employment. Meanwhile, some agencies that purchase Ventra cards meant for long-term use said the lengthy amount of time it takes to register and load multiple cards means caseworkers have less time to work with their clients.

Fifty-four percent of agencies that purchase Ventra tickets for low-income Chicago area residents said they reduced their level of transit assistance to their clients because of the 50-cent fee for the tickets, according to the survey of 48 groups released last week by the Chicago Jobs Council, a group that advocates for employment opportunities for those living in poverty.

Until June, social service agencies typically purchased the disposable magnetic-stripe cards for clients, loading $2.25 per rail ride. The CTA discontinued use of these cards systemwide July 1 as it finished its move to Ventra.

In the absence of the disposable, magnetic-stripe cards, some agencies are opting for the $3 single-ride tickets, which includes the $2.25 to ride the train, a 25-cent transfer and a 50-cent processing fee to create the ticket—a fee that goes to Ventra vendor Cubic Transportation Systems. Multiday passes organizations buy in bulk are also subject to the 50-cent fee.

Riders also can purchase a Ventra card meant for long-term use for $5, which is refunded as transit credit if the card is registered. Cash still is accepted on buses.

"The survey results highlight the negative impact Ventra has had on service providers' ability to offer transit assistance to low-income job seekers," Andres Moreno, senior communications and outreach associate for the jobs council, said in a statement to RedEye.

The jobs council is asking that the CTA waive the 50-cent fee on disposable tickets and streamline the process to purchase and load Ventra cards in bulk.

CTA spokesman Brian Steele said the CTA has never provided fare discounts to non-profits and social service agencies and has been working with the jobs council for several months on strategies for agencies to most effectively use Ventra.

But some agencies say they have found the registration process to be a hassle and prefer the disposable tickets. Nineteen percent of the agencies surveyed purchase only Ventra cards while 57 percent of respondents reported purchasing only tickets. Twenty-four percent purchased a mix of cards and tickets.

Because of the 50-cent ticket fee, agencies reported purchasing a total of 1,780 fewer tickets per month, which translated into serving 559 fewer people per month, the survey determined. Illinois's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 6.8 percent in July.

Lynne Cunningham, director of the Michael Barlow Center of St. Leonard's Ministries on the Near West Side, said her organization buys Ventra tickets to help people get to job interviews and for the first few weeks after they start their jobs before they receive their first paycheck.

Her group typically purchases 400 to 500 cards per year for its 100 clients, which are all formerly incarcerated men and women trying to find employment.

Cunningham said her agency experimented with purchasing Ventra cards but found the process difficult. Whereas previous clients could throw away the cards when they were done, the center would have to track down the cards and get them back so they wouldn't have to buy new ones.

Sometimes, the cards would come back with negative balances, Cunningham said. If a card is in good standing but does not have sufficient funds, Ventra readers sometimes will give the rider the benefit of the doubt and allow them on the CTA but deduct money from their card, bringing them into the negative.

The group found it easier to work with the single-ride disposable tickets even though the single rides cost more using the tickets than they do when using the non-disposable cards.

Cunningham said the 50-cent fee hasn't had too much of an impact this year because the agency began its fiscal year in July, when the CTA finished its switch to Ventra. She said the fee will have an effect as the agency nears the end of its fiscal year in June and may mean that the agency will cut back the assistance it provides to clients settling into new jobs.

"Knowing how much that fee is eating up what we have, it's going to be problematic when we get to the end of the year," Cunningham said.

Agencies also reported difficulty in loading and registering multiple cards. Survey respondents reported they purchased a total of 550 fewer passes per month and served 285 fewer people per month because of the "considerable administrative capacity required to register and load cards," according to the survey.

The CTA has been working with agencies to develop solutions to card problems, Steele said.

Agencies can sign up to be Ventra distribution partner and offer fare to clientele while earning a 1.5 percent commission on every transaction. Twenty-four non-profit agencies have signed up as retail partners and others have applied, Steele said.

As for offering free or discounted rides to these agencies, Steele said, "As a part of state and federal mandates, the CTA provides about $100 million of free and discounted rides each year, which already puts enormous pressure on our fares for full-paying customers as well as service."

tswartz@tribune.com | @tracyswartz