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updated: 4/8/2013 5:23 AM

CTA, Pace face learning curve on joint fare cards

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  • Commuters head to Pace buses after getting off the Blue Line train at the Rosemont station. Suburban commuters who use PACE and CTA patrons soon will have access to the transit agencies universal fare card, known as Ventra.

       Commuters head to Pace buses after getting off the Blue Line train at the Rosemont station. Suburban commuters who use PACE and CTA patrons soon will have access to the transit agencies universal fare card, known as Ventra.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Commuters head to Pace buses after getting off the Blue Line train at the Rosemont station. Suburban commuters who use PACE and CTA patrons soon will have access to the transit agencies universal fare card, known as Ventra.

       Commuters head to Pace buses after getting off the Blue Line train at the Rosemont station. Suburban commuters who use PACE and CTA patrons soon will have access to the transit agencies universal fare card, known as Ventra.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 

Ventra. Derived from the Latin word ventus or wind. It's also the new brand name for the CTA and Pace's new fare-card system.

Unfortunately Ventra's introduction to Chicago has gone over more like a PR stink bomb than a breath of fresh air for some.

The change was triggered by a state law requiring the CTA, Pace and Metra to come up with a universal fare system that allows for use of contactless cards by 2015.

But Metra riders will have to wait. The commuter rail agency is not currently participating in Ventra but hopes to integrate it into whatever system it adopts, which will be done by 2015, spokesman Michael Gillis said.

Suburban commuters who use Pace and CTA should know the two agencies will roll out the Ventra system this summer and fully integrate it in winter. At various hearings this spring in Chicago, CTA officials weathered complaints about fees and unfairness to low-income riders. Pace will hold hearings on Ventra later this year.

Despite the winds of discontent, transit leaders are promising faster access to buses and trains and more security for customers. Here are a few pointers on the new system:

The basics

Passengers can purchase Ventra cards at terminals located in local shops or at vending machines in CTA stations and add value with cash, credit or debit cards. The cards are contactless, allowing riders to tap them on fareboxes on CTA and Pace buses or at turnstiles in stations.

"There are a lot of benefits to the system for suburban transit riders over the current system -- there will be a greatly expanded retail network where customers can buy and add value to their cards," Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot said. "These will include some national and regional chains but also local mom-and-pop stores that may not currently sell Pace passes."

The two agencies will maintain their independent fee structures, and the Ventra system will identify specific Pace or CTA fares and deduct them from the cards. That means if you want to buy a Pace monthly pass and a CTA weekend pass, for example, it will all be incorporated into one Ventra card.

One feature of the program is that riders will also be able to pay with contactless debit or credit cards, that will directly subtract fares from personal accounts. There are no fees associated with this service, officials said.

Cash is still accepted on CTA and Pace buses. Base fares remain at $1.75 for Pace buses and $2 to $2.25 for CTA buses and $2.25 for CTA trains (with the exception of single-ride tickets for trains).

Buyer beware

Some Chicagoans have lambasted the new cards as bursting with hidden fees. Here's what to watch out for:

• One controversial Ventra product is the single-ride paper ticket for CTA train rides. Instead of paying $2.25 -- the price of a train ride -- it costs $3, which includes a transfer and 50 cent fee.

• When you purchase a Ventra card using a credit or debit card or cash, $5 will be automatically deducted. That money will be put back on the card as soon as you register by going online to ventrachicago.com or calling a number to be announced later. If you're buying Ventra for the first time and you just put in $5, you'll have a zero balance until registration. You must sign up within 90 days to get the $5 refund.

• Don't buy a Ventra card and forget about it. A $5 "dormancy fee" kicks in after 18 months. The $5 fee is charged every month until the card is used or until the balance in the account is gone. Customers will start getting reminders of the fee at 15 months.

• There's also a prepaid debit card option that allows users to make purchases or take cash out of ATMs that's generated a lot of complaints. It's officially known as the Money Network MasterCard Prepaid Debit Account and, if you activate it, you'll face numerous fees I'll explain later on.

Infrequent users

• For suburbanites who take the CTA or Pace a few times a year or less, the best bet might be to bring a contactless credit or debit card with you on Pace or the CTA. You can tap your card on turnstiles and at fare boxes and be done with it.

However, you may want to register your credit or debit card with Ventra to monitor your account and get the reduced transfer rate between Pace and the CTA. (Transfers between the CTA and Pace are 25 cents, but you won't get that discount if you use an unregistered personal credit or debit card.)

• Another option is to buy a Ventra card and load it with the exact amount you'll use on your trip. If you put in more value than needed, don't forget the dormancy fee.

Frequent riders

Frequent Pace and CTA riders will be able to obtain whatever fare packages they currently purchase using the Ventra system. For example, Pace 30-day Commuter Club passes can be loaded onto Ventra cards as can CTA Chicago cards.

For Metra monthly passholders that transfer to CTA or Pace using the Link-Up or PlusBus passes who may be wondering about the future of the discounted, rush-hour pass, the answer is: They're working on it.

"Pace, CTA and Metra are all working through various options that will continue the Metra Link-Up and Plus Buses through the transition to Ventra," CTA spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis said. "It is possible that the passes will be a combination of fare media as they are today."

For the record, Metra commuters bought 5,600 Link-Up and 1,400 PlusBus passes in January.

Reduced fare customers

The Regional Transportation Authority, which handles reduced fares and free rides for low-income seniors and individuals with disabilities, is also getting in on the Ventra act.

The RTA will start mailing new ID cards to paratransit, reduced-fare and ride-free passengers this summer. The cards will interface with the Ventra system, but there will be no $5 introductory fee. The $5 dormancy policy still applies.

The agency will send out information on the new system this spring, spokeswoman Diane Palmer said. "Everyone should use the permits we have until we let them know it's time to use the new card," she said.

Prepaid-debit flop

At a House Mass Transit Committee hearing last week, state lawmakers piled on CTA leaders over the prepaid debit card alternative and its associated fees.

Critics say the cards take advantage of a vulnerable population who -- because they don't have bank accounts or credit cards -- are desperate for an alternative to carrying cash.

Pace and CTA officials stressed activation is optional and the charges are similar to ones issued by retailers such as Walmart. The CTA is not responsible for the fees, Lukidis said, instead it's First Data Corp., which handles the prepaid cards for Ventra.

"People that don't have bank accounts -- which often includes lower-income individuals -- will have a number of benefits available to them" with the debit cards, Wilmot said. "First, they can take advantage of free direct deposit -- right now, many of these people are paying around 2.25 percent of their paycheck to currency exchanges to cash their paychecks."

Ventra prepaid debit card charges include: a $2 fee for customer service questions not related to lost or stolen cards or technical problems; a $5 card replacement fee; up to $4.75 for loading cash at participating agents such as gas stations; and $1.50 for ATM withdrawals. (There is no charge for loading money online.) To learn about more fees, go to www.ventrachicago.com/potential-fees/.

For more information, go to www.transitchicago.com, www.pacebus.com or www.rtachicago.com.

More about Metra

The commuter rail agency will hire a consultant to advise it on the transition to a universal fare system soon and will conduct pilot projects later this year, experimenting with mobile ticketing and ways to use credit cards on trains, Gillis said.

"Our system is different from the CTA's and Pace's in two significant ways: They have a flat fare and a closed system that must be entered through a turnstile or past a bus operator. Our fares are based on the distance traveled, and we have no barriers in our stations. That presents different challenges for us for a new fare payment system," he explained.

Gridlock alert

It won't be the Willow Road you know and love April 15 when lanes will be shifted to accommodate a two-year, $27 million widening project in Northfield. Lane closures already have started between Waukegan Road and the Edens Expressway. Drive carefully and may the Force be with you through the October 2014 completion date.

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