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Study: Ventra Fees Cost Social Service Providers 140,000 Bus Rides Per Year

Ventra Vending Machine Preview Event
A CTA staffer demonstrates how a Ventra machine works. Ventra replaced simpler and cheaper ways for social service organizations to procure transit cards for their clients. Photo: CTA

Ever since the Chicago Transit Authority and Pace switched from magnetic stripe fare cards to the Ventra smart card system in 2013, social service providers across Chicago have been spending more money on paying for their clients' transit rides, and giving out fewer rides. A new report from the Chicago Jobs Council details the burdens that Ventra fare policies and ticket ordering delays place on social service organization staff members and money dedicated to helping clients. The jobs council works to change laws and policies to increase access to jobs for marginalized workers.

The report says that for the organizations to provide fares to their clients they have to spend more time and money. The money they spend on the new Ventra fee could otherwise be spent on  hundreds of thousands in additional rides for job seekers. It starts with the cost of a new card. Ventra cards cost $5.

While the CTA refunds the $5 as credit for future rides if the account is registered, staff must spend time managing that registration process, and checking often to see how much value each card has left. In addition, it's possible for clients to run up a negative balance on their card that, to continue using the card, the organization has to pay off.

The report said that the plastic multi-ride cards "do not make sense for programs that serve highly transient populations" because they represent a "financial liability if they are lost or used to accrue a large negative balance." Ventra also doesn't offer a way to register or manage many cards. "Overwhelmingly," the report said, "providers rely on single-use paper tickets to provide transit assistance."

Anyone can run a negative balance because bus fare readers sometimes let people on even if they have less than $2.00 on their Ventra account. The CTA assumes you'll eventually put more money on the account to reach a positive balance.

If an organization doesn't want to wait long for a bulk order, which has to be mailed in, or pay off negative balances, then they're out there at CTA stations buying single-use tickets for $3.00, and racking up hundreds of dollars in "limited-use media" (disposable) fees, at a cost of 50 cents per ticket. That's the fee CTA charges to print a one-time use ticket and encourage using the hard plastic Ventra card.

The report surveyed 53 organizations which provide job training, shelter for the homeless, and youth services and found they're spending $280,000 annually in fees – the equivalent of 140,000 additional bus rides.

The report said that some organizations have waited up to two months to receive their bulk orders. Before Ventra, the CTA sold one-day and multi-day passes at its headquarters and retail stores including Walgreens, with no fee. To order these same tickets in bulk, bypassing the vending machine queue, one must use a printed form, purchase a minimum of 10 tickets, and pay a 50 cents fee for every ticket but the one-day pass.

Pauline Sylvain-Lewis, the director of the Center for Working Families at the North Lawndale Employment Network, said the Ventra issues mostly affect her organization, but that "it affects the client in terms of waiting time." Because of the variation in waiting time to receive the disposable tickets, sometimes her planning ahead wasn't good enough. Two to three weeks after mailing in the check, Sylvain-Lewis said, the tickets still didn't arrive. "So then our client was waiting for us," she said, "and we had to go to the train station to get the card for them."

The CTA only accepts checks for bulk orders but takes credit cards for every other kind of ticket sale, including at vending machines and for employer-administered accounts. Even at vending machines, staffers can only buy eight tickets per transaction, and credit cards are blocked after seven transactions, the report said. The report said the CTA missed several deadlines in launching online bulk ordering.

The Chicago Jobs Council recommends that Ventra make several changes to reduce costs and administrative burdens. The first being to waive the 50 cents fee for "social service providers who receive funding from city and county agencies." Other recommendations include making bulk orders available online, payable by credit card, and delivered within two weeks with a tracking number. The report also suggests giving service providers the option to disable the negative balance function on cards, which would using cards slightly more preferable.

Sylvain-Lewis said they've applied to get a Ventra value-adding device, so they can add cash value or passes to their cards directly that NLEN will purchase. At that point the organization will hold classes to teach clients how to register their cards and reclaim the $5 card purchase fee. "The ability to replace a [registered] card is the positive thing about Ventra," she said. The classes to promote and teach Ventra card registration are not something every organization would be equipped for because they would need a computer classroom.

"I think ultimately it's going to go good, but I don't think CTA and Ventra spent enough time researching and speaking to non-profits to roll the (Ventra) plan out," Sylvain-Lewis said, adding, "I think there should have been more conversations with the people who buy CTA fares about the impact of switching to Ventra."

The CTA hadn't responded to a request for comment by publication.

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