Chicago Tribune Getting Around column [Chicago Tribune]
(Chicago Tribune (IL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 11--A public hearing will be held Monday night about an upcoming fare-payment system that offers new options for CTA and Pace customers, but also contains costly penalties -- most notably a $3 cash CTA rail fare -- that transit riders can avoid, with a little effort.
The hearing seeking public feedback on the new Ventra fare card is required by law because of the new fees introduced in the open fare system, which is tentatively set to launch this summer, officials said. The hearing will begin at 6 p.m. at CTA headquarters, 567 W. Lake St., Chicago.
The changes are the result of a $454 million contract the CTA awarded to Cubic Transportation Systems in November 2011 to begin privatizing the fare-collection process.
The new fees being imposed are in connection with:
-- The purchase of $3 single-ride paper tickets on CTA trains, representing a 33 percent increase over the $2.25 base rail fare.
-- A $5 charge to purchase one of the new Ventra reloadable smart cards, which can be used on the CTA and Pace as well as at retail businesses where debit cards are accepted. The Ventra card will replace the CTA Chicago Card next year.
-- A $5-per-month "dormancy fee" that will be charged to transit accounts that are inactive for 11/2 years.
Not all of the charges were disclosed when the CTA announced Ventra last September. Despite the lack of initial transparency, transit riders can dodge the new fees. Today's Getting Around column will explain how.
The advice will be particularly important to low-income individuals, many of whom often pay fares using cash and would be among the hardest hit by a $3 rail fare. CTA customers can obtain a Ventra card on a no-cost basis and, if desired, maintain a small balance to avoid paying the $3 rail fare.
About 6 percent of CTA fares are paid with cash, according to the transit agency.
Critics say the new costs will be painful for both low-income and infrequent riders, and some question the decision to turn over fare-collection responsibilities to third parties under the 12-year contract between the CTA and Cubic.
"It is very dangerous to allow a private company to have access to the fare box on each bus and at each 'L' station, which is what CTA is doing," said Charles Paidock, secretary of Citizens Taking Action, a group representing transit-dependent individuals. "It doesn't put one bus on the street or a train on the track."
Under the new system, riders who do not use Ventra cards will be able to pay fares with credit or debit cards, CTA passes or the single-ride tickets. Paying fares using cellphones will be introduced at a later date, officials said.
Buses will continue to accept cash fares, but using cash to purchase a single-ride ticket on trains will become more expensive. Currently, people who pay bus fares using cash already forfeit the opportunity to buy a 25-cent transfer, which is valid for two rides, so these cash-payers must pony up the full fare for each boarding.
Starting this summer when Ventra is launched, CTA rail customers paying with cash will be charged $3 to purchase a single-ride paper ticket at train stations, instead of paying the $2.25 base fare that will remain in effect for all other fare-collection methods. The cash fare on buses will stay at $2.25, officials said.
The $3 charge includes a 50-cent fee to cover the cost of producing the disposable paper ticket containing a computerized chip, and 25 cents for a transfer, regardless of whether the rider uses the transfer.
Cash-payers can avoid the $3 rail fare by obtaining a Ventra card. The card costs $5 initially, but a $5 credit will be applied toward fares if the card is registered within 90 days, officials said.
Reloading the Ventra cards with money will be convenient, officials said, because by late this year or early in 2014 about 2,000 retail locations in the CTA service area will be outfitted for Ventra customers to add value to their cards. Most of the 2,000 locations are within one-third mile of a CTA bus stop. Currently, there are 600 locations, mostly at CTA rail stations, to reload the CTA's Chicago Cards, officials said.
The availability of many locations to add value to the cards across the CTA service area in Chicago and almost 40 suburbs, and about 500 additional locations in Pace's service area, should help transit riders who prefer or need to maintain small card balances and reload the cards often to pay bus and train fares and avoid the new $3 CTA rail cash fare, officials said.
"Ventra customers will be able to go into a corner store and reload," said Eric Reese, the CTA director of revenue.
It will be important for Ventra customers to register their cards -- and not just for the convenience of receiving the $5 credit and for being able to replace lost or stolen cards without losing the value on the card, Reese said.
Ventra card owners who register will receive notices if their cards haven't been used for 18 months. The notices request that the card owners use the card at least once to avoid paying a $5-per-month "dormancy fee." Using the card essentially restarts the clock for another 18 months, officials said.
CTA officials defended the dormancy fee, saying it is more forgiving than existing policy governing the CTA magnetic stripe transit cards, which after 15 months of non-use expire and all money on the cards is forfeited.
Transit officials said the goals behind the new open fare-collection system are to give commuters more flexibility and convenience when paying for their rides, and to save the CTA millions by getting it out of the business of operating like a bank.
Officials are hopeful that commuters will flock to the new contactless Ventra card, which will work like a prepaid debit card and can be used to manage up to two accounts -- one for transit fares and the other for other retail purchases.
But there will be no requirement to go the Ventra route.
The CTA and Pace also will start accepting credit cards on buses and at CTA rail stations. The only condition is that the credit cards are the contactless type, which is depicted on each card in the form of a radio antenna image. (If you have an older-generation computer chip or magnetic strip card, ask your bank or credit card company to provide a card with the new technology.)
"Our hope is that more and more people will use the Ventra card or their personal debit or credit card with the new system," Reese said. "You won't have to come to CTA to buy fare media. You can use whatever payment method you are comfortable with."
The CTA Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus will continue to be valid until an as-yet unspecified date in 2014, officials said.
Contact Getting Around at firstname.lastname@example.org 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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