CTA hearing sets sights on switch to Ventra card

Riders face higher fares unless they get card that works on CTA and Pace lines

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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.

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