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Ventra Is Ditching Prepaid Debit Option, Adopting a Groovy New Card Design

Picasso-inspired. Mid-Century Modern-influenced. Harlequin-esque. Psychedelic. Pointy. Fallout shelter.

All these phrases come to mind when I gaze at the hypnotic new design of the CTA Ventra fare payment card, which will be available for sale starting Monday, December 18. The new fare cards are also being mailed to customers who have previously registered their cards at and whose current cards are expiring.

“The Ventra card’s new design is inspired by the Ventra ‘V’, featuring a repetition of geometric triangles to create a pattern in varied hues of blue, a nod to Lake Michigan,” the transit agency said in a news release. Whatever, the new design is a huge improvement over its dreary, gray predecessor, which resembles a boring bankcard. That’s no coincidence, because the image makeover coincides with the transit agency phasing out the optional prepaid debit card function of the original Ventra cards – more on that below.

In 2013 the Ventra payment system began to replace the CTA’s magnetic strip cards in a rollout that was so glitchy – remember having to tap your Ventra card seven times on a bus before it registered? – that someone recorded a NSFW rap song about the problem. In one aspect, Ventra still isn’t as functional as the Chicago Card, which told you how much value was left when you swiped it at a turnstile.

But the bugs were eventually worked out, and a major advantage of the Ventra system, intended for use on all three regional transit networks, materialized in 2015 when the Ventra App debuted. This allows customers to skip Metra ticket windows and machines and pay on the train with out the usual onboard payment surcharge.

The first Ventra cards, issued in 2013, will begin to expire on December 31, 2017, through 2022. Ventra will send email notifications to registered customers two months before their cards expire, asking them to confirm their current mailing address so they can receive a free replacement card through the mail.

The agency is also encouraging Ventra holders who haven’t yet registered their cards to do so now. Not only do you get a refund for the $5 cost of the card in fare credit after you register it, if you lose the card you don't lose your stored fare value.

As part of the switch, the new Ventra cards will no longer offer the prepaid debit account feature that was an option when the system launched in 2013. “After analyzing customer preferences and habits, CTA determined that there wasn’t significant demand for this feature in part because of the numerous prepaid debit products in the marketplace and electronic payment options like Apple Pay, Android Pay and Samsung Pay, which have become more accessible and provide consumers with increased financial options, including the ability to pay their Ventra fares,” the CTA stated.

The prepaid debit function will become unavailable at the end of the year. Customers who have opened prepaid debit accounts as a part of their Ventra accounts can transfer funds to new prepaid cards offered by Money Network, which has administered the debit feature for Ventra. Customers can spend down their prepaid balances, transfer their funds to a new prepaid debit card, or have their funds returned to them via check from Money Network.

Arguably it’s a good thing that the Ventra prepaid debit card is going the way of the dinosaur. The debit card function debuted with a long list of fees that had the potential to siphon of much of the money stored on the card, including:

    • A $1.50 ATM withdrawal fee
    • A $2 fee to speak to someone about the retail debit account.
    • A $6.00 fee for closing out the debit balance
    • A $2 fee for a paper statement
    • A $2.95 fee to add money to the debit account using a personal credit card
    • A $10 per hour fee for “account research’’ to resolve account discrepancies
"These fees were probably not any different than other bank cards offered by Money Network or Meta Bank or other predatory banks," says Streetsblog Chicago's Steven Vance, who reported on the issue at the time. "But it was shameful for the CTA to be aligned with that."

After a backlash, most of these fees were reduced or eliminated, but CTA retail outlets were still allowed to charge Ventra card holders a fee of up to $4.95 to load cash on the debit sides of their cards. So maybe it is for the best that the CTA is getting out of the bank card business.

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