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You Might Already Be Ready to Use Ventra

Different ways to pay on CTA and Pace

Ventra, you may have heard, is the new fare payment system for Chicago Transit Authority and Pace. (Metra will not be joining the Ventra system, and is currently testing other fare payment methods.) CTA is switching to Ventra to save $5 million per year on maintaining outdated fare collection technology, according to spokesperson Lambrini Lukidis.

"We also print 35 million transit cards and passes each year," she said. That's a lot of waste! Lambrini also mentioned that the credit card industry is moving in the same direction and will be phasing out magnetic stripe cards in the next few years, saying, "We're ahead of the curve on this, but our main motivation is to make paying more efficient and to mirror the retail experience."

As with any transition, there will probably be an adjustment period, but the CTA doesn't deserve the scolding about its communications that Jon Hilkevitch dished out in his Tribune column today. The transition is not as complicated as Hilkevitch makes it out to be. Here's what you need to know.

The basics

The most important aspect of Ventra is that users will be able to pay fares with their own bank-issued credit or debit card. So you might be able to use the system without acquiring any new cards. This should make paying fares faster and convenient without adding any cost.

If you won't be using your own bank card, you can get a Ventra Card at 145 train stations or more than 2,000 retail locations, over the phone, or via the Ventra website.

You can buy transit fares with cash or credit at the Ventra vending machines, but if you choose to receive a disposable paper ticket instead of buying a new Ventra Card or reloading an existing one (with cash or credit/debit), you will have to pay an extra 75 cents (for a single transfer and the cost of the paper ticket). CTA and Pace buses will still accept cash, and the fare will not change from $2 and $1.75, respectively.

The vending machines

The Ventra machines replacing the larger, older vending machines in CTA's train stations have two functions: to add value to an existing card or account with cash or credit/debit, and to issue new tickets and cards. The Ventra machines can sell the following fare media:

    • A new plastic, reloadable card. At the Ventra machines, you will pay a $5 fee for this card (with cash or credit/debit). Do not discard it! The fee will be returned to you in the form of a cash balance when you register the card (this is a one-time fee). Registration also protects your investment in case the Ventra Card is lost or stolen. You can apply a 1-day or multi-day pass to the card after registration at train stations and retail outlets with cash or credit/debit.
    • Paper, single ride ticket that costs $3.00. This includes the base $2.25 fare, a 25 cents transfer fare, and a 50 cents "limited use media" fee to cover the cost of printing the electronic paper ticket (it has an RFID chip inside). Purchase with cash or credit/debit. You can't use this card again. Chicago is not the first city to try this type of incentive. The MTA in New York City is now charging $1 when riders buy new magnetic stripe MetroCards.
    • Paper, 1-day pass. This costs the same as the 1-day pass now, $10. Again, purchase it with cash or credit/debit. You can't use it again.

That covers the basics. Now on to the finer details...

Special cases


Students at participating universities and colleges will be issued a single U-Pass Ventra Card for their entire study there. Each semester, instead of lining up to receive a new, flexible U-Pass, which are prone to cracking, eligible students will receive a more durable card that still features the student's photo; outside of school sessions, students can load a cash balance or passes so they can use the Card to pay for rides. The Ventra system knows when their term is up and when school starts again, applying the U-Pass at the right times. There is no fee to use it.

Chicago Card/Plus

Riders who use Chicago Card Plus to get the pre-tax transit benefit will need to associate that benefit with a Ventra account. Their fare medium can either be a Ventra reloadable card or a bank card.

People who use Chicago Card Plus to have the auto-reload or 30-day pass feature must create a new Ventra account as their cards will be disabled some time after Ventra begins. Accounts will be transferred; CTA will send a note to all registered users in the near future to have them validate mailing address after which a Ventra Card will be mailed.  They can pay with either a Ventra Card or a personal bank-issued card.

Having Ventra gives current Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus pay-as-you-go users a new feature: they will be able to add a 1-day or multi-day pass to their account, in addition to the cash balance. This would be most useful for occasional transit riders who are going to need to use transit very frequently in a short period. This is the category I fit into.

I have a Chicago Card Plus, and I pay per ride instead of having the 30-day pass option. If my bike breaks down and it's going to take a bike shop five days to fix it, I'll log in to my Ventra account and apply a 5-day pass. The next time I use my Ventra account – via a Ventra Card or my bank card – the CTA will see that I have a pass and use that to pay my fare instead of my cash balance.

I wouldn't have to go online to buy this pass: I could apply the pass to my Ventra account at all CTA train stations and the 2,000 retail locations (where I could pay with cash or credit/debit). I could also use a mobile-friendly website or call Ventra customer service.

For those who never had a Chicago Card or Chicago Card Plus, but want those features, you can get a Ventra Card or bring your own bank-issued personal credit or debit card. You can reload this card with a cash balance or apply a 1-day or multi-day pass at the train stations, retail outlets, online, or over the phone.

Other groups

Other discounted rider groups, like seniors, passengers with disabilities, and military members, will also be switching to Ventra. They will also be asked to confirm mailing address to receive a Ventra Card.

Turning your Ventra card into a cash card

If you choose, you can "activate" the cash/debit functions of the Ventra Card and purchase things and services wherever MasterCard is accepted. There will be two different "purses" on the same Ventra account: transit and retail. If your transit purse is low when you want to board, Ventra will look at your retail purse and use those funds. You'll be able to reload the retail purse at the 2,000+ retail locations (not at the train stations).

That just about covers it. What questions do you have about Ventra?

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