Metra to roll out new vending machines

Metra plans to start installing new ticket vending machines across the system next year, a transition that may have a significant impact on future fare collection.

Board directors last week approved a $70 million contract with California-based VenTek International to purchase and maintain 650 ticket vending machines.

The first phase of the redo involves 300 machines. Beginning in mid-2022, workers will swap out older units at downtown stations and busy Metra Electric stops. At 57 manned stations, "we would go to vending machines only, including downtown stations, where we would have customer service staff available" to assist riders, spokesman Michael Gillis said.

Metra will not lay off ticket agents. "Some positions will be cut through attrition, and others will be reassigned to customer service roles," Gillis said.

In addition, 75 machines will be located at strategic stations to pilot a "proof-of-payment" fare system.

In the second phase, 350 more machines will be installed across the system so all 242 train stations will have a vending machine.

Most of Metra fares - nearly 69% - are handled through the Ventra app.

But conductors still sell tickets on board to commuters when needed, which comes to about 14.3% of all sales.

In proof-of-payment systems, passengers are required to have a ticket before they board a train. Transit employees check for tickets, and riders who get on board without one could be issued a fine.

"You can't have that system unless people are able to buy tickets at every station, and right now they can't," Gillis said. "We're not saying we're going to that system, but we know a lot of jurisdictions that use it. We would have to have machines in place before we even make that decision."

Executive Director Jim Derwinski said in a statement that although changes would be needed, the vending machines "can facilitate a best practices proof-of-payment fare system."

Also, "these machines will allow Metra to meet a long-standing goal of eliminating cash sales of tickets onboard trains, and all the accounting hassles and safety issues that go with onboard cash sales," Derwinski said.

"But they also will do much, much more, such as make tickets easier and more convenient to purchase, reduce person-to-person contact, speed up fare validation, reduce missed sales, reduce fare evasion, reduce printing costs, and allow for more flexible and promotional ticketing."

About 14.3% of Metra fares are sold by ticket agents. Just 2% of tickets are bought using vending machines.

The machines will be accessible 24 hours a day, will be able to accept cash or credit, and will issue paper tickets including 10-ride and monthly passes.

The contract will be paid through capital funding that includes revenues from the Regional Transportation Authority and state.

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