The Chicago Transit Authority’s rollout of the new Ventra fare card had a rocky time last week, after a series of technical and customer service problems forced the CTA to backtrack on its plan to stop issuing old passes.
The endless thread of comments—mostly complaints--on the Chicago Transit Authority’s Facebook page, as well as responses our reporters solicited on social media about the first few days of planned Ventra-only transit were almost Kafka-esque. Some people had yet to receive their cards but were already receiving multiple emails urging them to register their card. One man received more than 100 cards. Others reported waiting on hold indefinitely to speak with a representative who never answered.
But many complaints centered on the fact that the Ventra system could cost more for those who have less to spend.
To use the old CTA magnetic fare passes, there was no additional cost beyond what was placed on the card as transit fare. But for Ventra cards, the process is more complicated. A card itself costs $5. The money is returned if the card is registered online or over the phone within 90 days. But for the nearly 40 percent of Chicagoans who are entirely offline or have limited access to Internet connections, registering the Ventra card could be difficult.
A commenter on the Facebook page of one of our reporters expressed concern for people who did not have regular Internet access to check whether they were being double charged for their cards:
The bogus charges they put on your account, when you actually don't use the card. In other words, they are robbing folks by charging them extra swipes, and swipes that you have not made. And if you don't have a computer or Internet access, there's no way to know they are stealing from U. It only gets fixed after you call, however what happens if you never notice it?
Another commenter noted that it was difficult to see how much money is on the card, which made it hard to take advantage of the $.25 transfer fare:
I think my biggest complaint, though, is that Ventra doesn't let you know the balance on your card every time you use it, which the old fare cards did. I'm on CTA a lot, every day, which makes it hard to keep a mental running note of my balance. Unexpectedly not having enough for a transfer is a giant PITA.
Another commenter on a reporter’s Facebook page said privatizing fare systems gave private companies access to money that should be going into the public coffers:
The banking partners now have access to your money to use for their other investment opportunities. They can also transfer wealth via fees from your bank account directly to them. Ten cents and twenty dollars from one victim is nothing. From hundreds of thousands of victims... FOREVER... is REAL money for these people to use in other ways in other markets. It is a straight up wealth transfer and an invitation to abuse/fraud. etc. Oh, in return there will be less public employees making salaries; spending money and paying taxes to SUPPORT the city and getting pensions. Sort of a lose, lose, lose for people and a virtually bottomless piggy bank for Org. Money...
As we previously reported, the Ventra system is run by a San Diego-based company called Cubic Transportation Systems. Cubic oversees revenue services on five continents, and has received more than $4 billion in contracts doing it. A Freedom of Information Act request from the Chicago Reporter requesting a copy of Chicago’s contract with Cubic has yet to be returned, but the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the contract cost almost half a billion dollars.
Despite the CTA’s insistence that the Ventra card was introduced because the old transit cards were becoming outdated, many comments expressed confusion as to why Ventra was introduced in the first place:
I want to know who is making money off this new system. Why did they make a switch that no one seemed to ask for??
While others had their theories:
I have a question - which CTA or city hall bigwig can we expect it to be eventually be revealed has a familial or business relationship with Cubic Transportation Systems? It's hard to think of another reason why this would be farmed out to San Diego at the cost of Chicago residents' jobs. Unless it was on ideological grounds - I know the Mayor of Chicago hates public services and public workers and wants to see them all privatized.
The rocky road to Ventra has also been ripe for satire. The Whiskey Journal, a local website, announced Wednesday that:
In an unexpected move the Chicago Transit Authority announced on Wednesday that the organization’s current transit card would be replaced with a slice of ham, according to city officials.
Citing the absolute lack of problems with current card system, the CTA announced the new ham slice system was critical and would take effect immediately.
Or, as another commenter put it:
At last, a parking meter deal for those of us without cars!
A previous version of the story said that to register a Ventra card, it had to be connected to a bank account. That information has been corrected.