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.
  • Do you really believe it is hard for people to accumulate $5? It sounds trivial to me, and I’m sure there are people for whom $5 really is hard to get, but for a transit card, when the cost of a single fare is $2 or greater, $5 is really not that expensive.

  • Very poor people, like homeless individuals, may not be able or willing to spend $5 instead of $3 for a single purchase when they have other things they need or want to buy with their limited funds. Also, you don’t get any fare credit from the $5 purchase unless you register the card, another challenge for the very poor. Since the machines don’t accept change, that means you’d have to spend $8 to take one train ride on an unregistered card.

  • Fred

    I still don’t see the big deal on the debit cards. It is a product that is already available. Anyone can walk into a Chase bank branch and walk out with a Chase Liquid card. I think you can also buy prepaid debit cards at 7/11. This isn’t some crazy new thing magically thought up to prey on poor people. Why is it acceptable to assume all poor people are ignorant idiots?

  • Fred

    When will I be able to ditch my separate CTA-only payment card in favor of using my RFID credit card? I haven’t seen anything about this other than casually mentioning it as one of the benefits of Ventra.

  • Anonymous

    We should find a way to give Ventra cards for free to people who really need it. That should not be too hard, since we can identify them using WIC or SNAP eligibility.

    On the other hand, I am amazed that we are really using the argument that you cannot replace the value on an unregistered card if it is lost or stolen as proof that Ventra is not serving the poor. You have to treat this card like cash. It is your responsibility to hang on to it. You can’t go to some agency if a $20 bill if it lost or stolen either.

  • Anonymous

    John, I am confused about the last sentence. Does an unregistered card always charge the $3 for a ride? I did not read that before.

    Even with that being true, your statement should read “you’d have to spend $8 to take the first train ride on an unregistered card. subsequent train rides are $3”

  • No, the ride would only be $2.25, so the total would be $7.25, but you’d have to put $8 in the machine and you wouldn’t get any change, just 75 cents transit credit.

  • Yes, that’s one of the advantages of Ventra – you can potentially have less cards in your wallet.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the clarification. But then ride number 2, 3, and 4 would be $2 each, since you are using up the transit credit.

  • No one’s assuming that low-income folks are less savvy then other people. On the contrary, it takes skills to be able to survive with limited funds. But there is no way to get your $5 card purchase back without registering the card, and when you register the card you are given the option of activating the debit card. The debit card company makes its money off of the, arguably hidden, user fees. So the question is, is it appropriate for us to fund our transit system by requiring users to be exposed to a pitch for the debit card? This could lead to many people signing up for the card and getting stuck with user fees they can’t afford.

  • Right, but my point is you have to have $8 in your hand to take the first ride, and that could be a roadblock for a very poor person. They might just throw up their hands and buy a $3 single ticket instead.

  • Anonymous

    It was a requirement of the state legislation regarding a universal transit card if I remember correctly. Is it true that there will be a prompt for the debit card option, or just speculation? I thought you had to call MasterCard directly to activate the debit option.

  • Anonymous

    You will be able to use change from the mock ups I have seen, just like you can add $2.25 onto a card currently. Are we sure that groups like pacific garden mission aren’t going to try to facilitate distribution and registration of cards for those who use their services? I have heard rumblings about how bulk purchases will be done through not for profits, but no concrete plans.

  • I’m double checking the change question. Bulk purchases of Ventra cards by nonprofits seems like a likely scenario, but I don’t believe the CTA has made announcements about this.

  • Fred

    I am not talking about the $5 registration fee, only the debit card.

    Private companies pitch add-on extra sales all the time. Should the CTA (or government entities) be held to a higher standard? My Cook County property tax bill has a Chase ad in it 2x a year. Would you feel the same way if the ad were for, say, a subscription to Reader’s Digest instead? Do you have a problem with the sales pitch, or the specific product being pitched?

  • Fred

    So you don’t have any additional info either…

  • Ted King

    Re : “Ventra touch bad” photo
    Freudian slip ? Or did you mean to say “pad” ?

  • Sorry, I missed the “when” part of your question. Doesn’t seem to be mentioned in the timeline – let me look into this.

  • I’d feel better about it if there was option of purchasing a Ventra card that was not also a potential debit card, with the Debit Mastercard logo on the corner of the card. I have no problem with them including ads in the info packet they send.

  • OK, the CTA is telling me Ventra machines will accept U.S. coins as payment but will not provide change. Therefore, one have $7.25 in hand to pay for the first ride, not $8 – sorry for the error.

  • Joseph Musco

    It’s not just poor people. I’ve seen a similar phenomenon at O’Hare with the new $5 fare. People don’t have 5 singles or a five dollar bill and don’t wan’t to charge up a fare card with $10 or $20. So it’s either pay more than you want to charge up a fare card or wait in line to use the machines that take credit. Both choices create lines and frustration among riders. Nobody likes paying out more money than they need to for anything, rich or poor.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    John, how did you arrive at “nearly 20-year-old Chicago Card”? The Wikipedia article on Chicago Card says the basic ones were made available to the public in November 2002. That sounds like 11 years to me. Are we rounding up – way up?

  • Also, what’s so difficult about calling to register your card?

  • As I wrote, you need access to a phone, which is not a trivial thing if you’re homeless. You also need to to provide a home address, ditto.

  • Was there anything specifically mentioned regarding military passes?

    I saw your note about Ride Free but that’s provided via RTA while as far as I can tell the CTA is solely responsible for the Military Pass.

  • No, military passes were not mentioned in the press release put out by the CTA and Pace.

  • Anonymous

    You may not think twice about doing that, but there are plenty of recent immigrants in this town who do not speak enough English to be able to register a card using the phone. Yet a lot of these immigrants rely on the CTA for their transportation needs.

  • I can only assume the phone service will bilingual, otherwise that would be a massive oversight.

  • Anonymous

    I am not talking Hispanic immigrants here, but Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese and Tibetan immigrants, as well as from various African countries. My wife worked with them, and simple social interactions that we take for granted cause these individuals a lot of problems. My wife ended up making lots of phone calls on their behalf.
    There is no way that these residents would register their card via the phone on their own.

  • It’s possible the website will be available in various languages.

  • bartm

    They are not going to be checking your ID when you register. You can give City Hall or CTA Headquarters as your home address. Or a church or a homeless shelter or a liquor store. The disadvantage, of course, is that if you lose your card, they will mail a replacement to the address you gave them.

    But since there is a $5 replacement fee, it is unlikely that a homeless person will have more than $5 on the card anyway. Anyhow, if you don’t register, you don’t get your $5 credit and you don’t get a replacement card, so a homeless person has nothing to lose by giving a fake address.

  • bartm

    Suggestion: If you are really worried about getting Ventra cards to the poor, start up a Ventra Cards for the Poor collection.

    Buy a Ventra card, register it, then use up the $5 and donate it to Ventra Cards for the Poor (VCP). Next time you need to ride, just get another Ventra card and use it up. If you are concerned about some poor stranger having a card registered in your name, use a fake name.

    Set up VCP collection boxes in convenient locations and then take the donated cards to homeless centers, community groups, and churches in poor neighborhoods. Get volunteers to distribute Ventra cards wherever they are needed.

    Remember, there is no limit to the number of Ventra cards you can get. Get a new Ventra card every time you use up the $5 and donate the old one to VCP!

  • bartm

    You can just put $5 on the card and then phone to register it. You don’t have to have $8.

    While the poor may not have cell phones, registration is done by calling a toll-free number which can be done free from a payphone.

    I know you are about to tell me that there are no payphones anywhere. That is untrue. Yes, they are far more difficult to find than they once were. You don’t know where they are because you have a cell phone and don’t have to look for one. People who live their lives without their own phones have some idea where they are.
    Poor people are not totally helpless.

  • Wow, that would be a real scavenger hunt locating a pay phone in Chicago. IIRC, they even removed the pay phones from City Hall. Do you actually know of any locations with functioning pay phones? If so, please share. My impression is they’re rare as hen’s teeth.

    No, as I said earlier, getting by on less takes skills, but the Ventra cards seems to be creating extra obstacles for use and requires a certain amount of premeditation in order to avoid paying extra fees.

  • bartm

    Here ya go:

    https://twitter.com/ctatattler/status/361237327504371712/photo/1
    Right outside the Howard ‘L’ station.

  • OK, there’s one. Seems like an exception that proves the rule.

  • duece19

    When did the public vote on this??

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