CTA Chief Defends Ventra at State Hearing

CTA President Forrest Claypool says new fare system will save the city $5 million annually

Chicago Transit Authority President Forrest Claypool and Director of Revenue Eric Reese on Monday defended the agency's planned switch to the new Ventra fare system, saying it will save the city $5 million annually.

Claypool said the current system is aging and Ventra’s "contact-less technology" would provide convenience for riders.

He compared Ventra to the latest generation of the smartphone and the current system to a flip phone, stating magnetic cards are becoming obsolete and the new system’s technology is more modern and efficient.

He and Reese were pressed on questions about fees associated with an optional feature of the card, but Claypool said the fees have been made avoidable in hopes of aiding low-income riders.

"If you only read media coverage of Ventra you might believe the system will be hard to use and understands, but that's simply not true," said Claypool. "Today, many people buy their fares by walking up to a fare vending machine, putting in some money, pressing a button, and having their card come out. That's exactly how it will work under Ventra."

The Ventra accounts are free, but there will be a $5 initial fee to purchase the card which will be reloaded onto the card to be used as fare.

The fees causing concern are associated with the "100 percent voluntary choice" to activate the debit portion of the Ventra card.

A spokeswoman for NerdWallet.com, a web site that rates and analyzes debit and credit card products, said the fees associated with the prepaid debit MasterCard account tied to Ventra -- such as a card replacement fee, a fee to speak with a customer service representative and ATM owner surcharge fees -- could still cost customers about $15 per month.

"Fees are an added fare. So there's secretly a fare, and none of those fees or added fares contribute to public transit," said Charles Paidock with the group Citizens Taking Action.

Regardless of how many debit accounts are activated, the CTA's contract with Ventra guarantees at least $500,000 in income for the transit agency, the Chicago Tribune explained.

The cost to travel remains the same -- $2 for the bus and $2.25 for the train -- but if you buy a single-ride disposable card with cash, expect to pay an additional 75 cents.

CTA says the fee is meant to cover the cost of the disposable cards (with an embedded chip), and maintains that the additional fee is directed toward infrequent riders and tourists who are more likely to not have a Ventra card.

Claypool plans to enact an outreach campaign to educate costumers about what Ventra has to offer. The system will also undergo a beta test, Chicago Plus Transit Care users will be the first to test the system.

The transition to the Ventra system will begin in early December and be completed in 2014.

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