Ventra to Launch August 5; Concerns Remain About Impact on Poor People

Different ways to pay on CTA and Pace

The new payment options; cash will only be accepted for bus fare. Photo: Steven Vance

Today the CTA and Pace announced they’ll begin rolling out the new Ventra fare payment system for select customers on August 5, with access for all riders starting on September 9. The agencies are touting Ventra as a more up-to-date, efficient and convenient replacement for the nearly 20-year-old swipe card technology. However, as the launch moves forward, there are lingering concerns about the impact of the new system on low-income Chicagoans.

CTA and Pace officials are touting several new features of the system, which will allow riders to pay via contactless Ventra cards that can be activated as prepaid debit cards, registered bankcards, or single-ride and one-day tickets. All cards and tickets that may be used will be contactless, which will expedite bus boarding and reduce delays at train station turnstyles. Registered users will be able to purchase passes and add value online, and they’ll get balance protection in case a card is lost or stolen. The new system, designed by Cubic Transportation Systems, is a step towards a unified transit fare medium. Although Metra is not participating in this reboot, a universal fare card is mandated by 2015 by state legislation.

The week of August 5, students at Rush Medical School, Westwood College of Technology and Northwestern University School of Law will begin receiving Ventra U-Pass cards in the mail; other college students will receive cards later in the summer. Kids at Chicago public schools will be given Ventra cards during school orientation at the end of August.

ventra cta pace fare machine

Ventra machine at an 'L' station. Photo: Metropolitan Planning Council

The CTA recently sent 100,000 emails to Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus customers asking them to confirm that their registered addresses are correct. Those who have validated their addresses by email will receive cards by mail the week of August 19. If you haven’t already done so, you can update your account at transitchicago.com or (888)YOUR-CTA. Once you receive your Ventra card, you can active it by calling (877)NOW-VENTRA. Chicago Card Plus balances or passes will automatically transfer to your new card.

Riders who received their Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus through pretax transit benefit programs at work will start receiving notification of their transition to Ventra starting in September.

These groups will be the only ones able to purchase passes or add value to their Ventra cards until September.  The general public will be able to use the new system starting September 9, when Ventra cards will be sold at stores and at train stops. Between August 5 and September 9, Ventra machines will only be available for reloading Ventra cards; customers will not be able to buy new Ventra cards from the machines until September 9.

Although the modernized fare system offers several benefits to users, concerns remain that Ventra may lead to higher expenses for the poorest Chicagoans. The price of a single-ride train ticket will rise from $2.25 to $3, due to the higher cost of producing contactless cards.

A Ventra terminal ready to go

Ventra touch pad on a CTA bus. Photo: Ryanbytes

CTA officials have said this extra charge is easily avoided by purchasing a reusable Ventra card for $5, which will be refunded as a transit credit when the card is registered online, over the phone or in person at the CTA headquarters. However, when customers register the card, they will be offered the option of activating it as a prepaid debit card with many associated user fees, a temptation that many low-income people can ill afford. In May, the CTA announced some of the debit card fees would be reduced.

In addition, some very low-income individuals may have difficulty accumulating $5 to purchase a card and might instead find themselves repeatedly paying the $3 fare. For those who do purchase a card, accessing the Internet, a phone, or the CTA offices may be a barrier to registering the card.

As the Tribune reported earlier this month, an internal study conducted for the CTA confirmed that low-income customers, roughly 11 percent of riders, are unlikely to register their Ventra cards, and are therefore likely to forfeit the $5 credit. Also, if you don’t register a card, there’s no way to get a refund for value left on a card that is lost or stolen. The CTA and Pace hope to mitigate the impact of the lost credit on poor Chicagoans by distributing Ventra cards with the $5 purchase fee waived at dozens of community meetings, street festivals and other events this summer. The agencies will soon be announcing locations and dates where residents can pick up and register the free cards.

Here’s a timeline for the Ventra launch provided by the transit agencies:

August:

  • Chicago Card Plus and registered Chicago Card customers who have received their Ventra cards can begin using Ventra system the week of August 19 one they have activated their cards.
  • The first U-Pass customers will begin using the system the week of August 5.
  • Chicago Card Plus and registered Chicago Card customers who have received their Ventra cards can begin using Ventra system upon receipt and activation of the cards.
  • CPS students will receive their Ventra transit cards during school orientation prior to the first day of school on August 26.
  • Customers who use magnetic stripe fare cards should begin to spend down balances.
  • There will be fewer Express Vending Machines accepting credit cards and Visitor Pass Machines at select rail stations.

Starting in September:

  • Ventra is available to all CTA and Pace customers on September 9.
  • New Chicago Cards will no longer be issued; balances can still be spent or transferred to Ventra.
  • There will be fewer Transit Card Vending machines to purchase and load fare value at rail stations.
  • No more Express Vending machines and Visitor Pass machines at rail stations.
  • The Regional Transportation Authority will begin issuing new Reduced Fare, Ride Free and ADA Paratransit permits to seniors and people with disabilities currently enrolled in those programs.

By the end of October:

  • Chicago Card customers can no longer add or reload transit value at vending machines; balances on cards can still be used or transferred to Ventra.
  • Magnetic stripe customers can no longer buy new transit cards at station vending machines, but can continue to reload their existing cards.
  • Magnetic stripe cards will no longer be sold at retail locations; retailers will have fewer magnetic stripe unlimited-ride period passes (1-day, 3-day, 7-day and 30-day) passes in stock.
  • Fewer Transit Card Vending machines

November:

  • Customers can no longer reload stored value cards.
  • No more functioning Transit Card Vending machines at CTA stations or offsite locations; these will be replaced with Ventra vending machines.
  • Customers can no longer purchase new period passes.
  • Balances on unlimited ride period passes need to be used up.
  • RTA will no longer distribute the old Reduced Fare, Ride Free and ADA Paratransit permits.

December:

  • Magnetic stripe farecards (including stored value or period passes) will be no longer accepted.
  • Balance transfers of stored value on remaining valid magnetic stripe cards can be transferred to Ventra through March 2014.
  • Transfers can no longer be purchased on Pace using cash, subject to Pace Board approval, but can be purchased with Ventra Cards or registered bankcards.
  • All Reduced Fare, Ride Free and ADA Paratransit customers must use their new Ventra permits.