CTA ends break in extra charge for Blue Line trips from O'Hare

Chicago Card users join other riders in having to pay $5, but airport and airline workers still exempt

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The cost of riding the CTA Blue Line from O'Hare International Airport increases by 122 percent on Monday for many riders who haven't already been hit by the fare hike.

The price jumps to $5 from $2.25 for what the CTA considers "premium-level" rail service between the airport and downtown. From mid-January until now, only riders buying single-ride fares had to pay $5 to board trains at O'Hare. Riders using a Chicago Card or a Chicago Card Plus avoided the higher fare.

With Monday's end to the exemption, CTA officials hope to collect about $4 million more through the end of the year. An average of 10,055 riders boarded Blue Line trains at the O'Hare station on an average weekday last year, ranking it among the more highly used stations on the system, according to the agency's data.

The full force of the O'Hare fare hike going into effect is part of a series of price increases the transit agency began Jan. 14 for one-day, three-day, seven-day and 30-day passes. All other single-ride, pay-as-you-go fares have remained the same, including the Orange Line fare from Midway Airport to the Loop.

The half-year reprieve at O'Hare for users of stored-value cards wasn't a generous gesture to reward loyal Chicago Card customers.

Rather, the move was in response to an outcry from airline employees, Transportation Security Administration screeners and other airport workers. Those thousands of people, most of whom use a variation of the Chicago Card, complained to their aldermen and to City Hall that they would be hit hard — and unfairly so — by the $5 fare. CTA officials said the increase predominantly would affect fliers landing at O'Hare.

The delay gave the CTA time to work with the Chicago Department of Aviation on a plan to permanently exclude airline and airport workers from the $5 fare, officials said. Sparing the workers from the surcharge cost the CTA an estimated $750,000 from January through June, agency officials said.

A smart card was created to preserve the $2.25 base fare for O'Hare and airline employees, CTA spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis said. The cards, which include an employee photo, were issued last week and will allow workers to add value to the cards at CTA vending machines, just like they could with a Chicago Card, she said.

But not all covered employees have received the cards, Lukidis said.

CTA spokesman Brian Steele said the cards are ready for pickup at the Aviation Department's office at O'Hare. And attempts will be made to distribute the cards Monday, he said.

Those employees may get socked with the $5 fare until their smart cards are issued.

There's a way to avoid paying the extra $2.75. It may not be the perfect solution for every air traveler, but it still beats the price of taking a cab.

Chicago Card Plus customers who travel from O'Hare frequently can get around the fare increase by buying a 30-day unlimited-ride pass and linking it to their Plus card. The Plus cards are account-based, which allows cardholders to add value by linking the cards to their personal bank or credit card accounts.

Other options to avoid paying the extra cost include buying and using any type of CTA pass. Only 30-day passes can be linked to Chicago Card Plus, however, and the price of the 30-day pass increased this year to $100 from $86, a 16 percent increase.

Multiday passes are not a good value for pilots and flight attendants, whose jobs keep them out of town for several days each week.

And the CTA hiked the prices of all passes in January to raise an estimated $56 million a year, so even if you use a pass at O'Hare to avoid the $5 fare, you can't avoid a fare increase this year.

When the CTA begins rolling out its new Ventra card payment system in August, customers will have the option to link it to any type of CTA pass, from the one-day to the 30-day, officials said. The Ventra card will replace the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus next year.

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com 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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