Where Forrest Claypool went wrong on the CTA Ventra mess

In general, I like CTA President Forrest Claypool and think he's done a good job since being appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2011.

But boy, he sure has made a mess of the Ventra fare/debit card release.

In government, transparency rules. It is a key to winning the trust of citizens.

But there was a basic lack of transparency on rules and fees for the Ventra card from the beginning, and now it's coming back to bite Claypool.

I can't help but think how much easier it would have been if all the various fees and rules for using the new Ventra card had been laid out back when the system was unveiled in September 2012. Instead, they have been revealed in a piecemeal fashion. And a journalist had to read the fine print of a 1,000-page contract to learn of some of the onerous fees tied to the debit card side of the Ventra card.

And Claypool owns this mess. He appeared on WTTW's Chicago Tonight Tuesday night to answer his critics, particularly the Chicago Tribune.

Claypool essentially scoffed at the Tribune report that fees to use Ventra as a debit card will be $200 a year. "Simply not true," he said. "That's a hypothetical, extreme example. Ventra is in the bottom quartile on costs compared to other debit cards. " Claypool went on to stress that using Ventra as a debit card is a voluntary.

Of course, Claypool is right about that. But it also would have been the right thing to do to lay out all these facts at the very beginning.

So we'll call this Ventra mess Claypool's first big stumble. And we'll hope it's his last.


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  • "Claypool's first big stumble"?? He has been a consistent stumble since the charade of the CT Board "appointing" him.

    Transparency? How about the hearings on the "Crowd Reduction Plan;" i.e. the plan to reduce service on Lincoln and Wilson, among others?

    How about the month late 2013 budget, the hearings on them, and then thinking that the RTA would pass it in one day?

    And how abut the hearing on the $3.00 Ventra ticket?

    And you are about a year late on when you think the details of the Ventra contract should have been disclosed. The hearing agendas indicate that the CT Board passed it in Nov. 2011, not when the administration revealed some things in Sept. 2012.

    Heck, how about the promised cooperation with Metra on the Dan Ryan project? In effect, Metra agreed to nothing.

    That is what happens with city residents are content with incompetent, but arrogant pols. And, as I mentioned before, Claypool is so "transparent" that he departed from the pattern of Kruesi, Huberman, and Rodriguez, and does not post a monthly President's Report. Maybe he doesn't report to the useless CT Board.

    On that scale, I would consider the debit card kerfuffle minor. CTA is itself doing more of a ripoff with the dormancy fee.

  • In reply to jack:

    Jack, we can agree to disagree. Claypool is not perfect, but he's done much to improve the the ride for CTA passengers.

    When I talk about transparency, I mean deliberately hiding pertinent details of something. I don't think that happened with the Lincoln bus and the 2013 budget.

  • In reply to Kevin O’Neil:

    Unless there is evidence that buses and trains have been decrowded, explicitly as a result of those cuts, then it wasn't transparent. All buses now have gps counters--where are the current numbers?

    There might be some decrowding on the L but that appears to be the result of such things as short turning rush hour trains at UIC and Jefferson Park--not what was previously announced..

    There was the single bid deal proposed to rehab the 3200 cars that was exposed by Hilkevitch, and apparently is now dead because the rail car requisition, Addendum 1 says they will be scrapped by Options 5 and 6.

    Before that, he was at least engaged in doubletalk, including to your face.

    So, maybe it is a combination of duplicity, deception, and an unDemocratic view and contempt of the people.

    Hilkevitch got his head out of the sand about when Claypool was installed. Maybe you did a little last night, but not enough.

  • In reply to jack:

    Yeah, I was wondering why there was no President's report, or at least not consistent ones. When he first took over, I remember that they didn't do slow zone reports for a long time too before that started back up. Now they are more inconsistent, but at least they post them. Also, the meeting reports are much more slow to be posted in general and posted piecemeal.

    As for decrowding, I think my Addison bus is better than it used to be in the mornings in particular. The entire bus used to be crammed to the doors and now that rarely happens. Of course this is anecdotal, but I thought I'd share.

  • Here's the other problem with Ventra.
    Claypool says the existing Chicago Cards won't be made anymore so they had to go to Ventra.
    $454 million for Ventra instead of checking around & getting a card manufacturer to make the cards.
    Or, just do what they're doing on the buses, add a new card reader at the L stations & the existing machines & buy a couple of hundred more machines & scatter them around the city.
    That would have been no more than $100 million!

    And don't forget the horrible sideways seats, that no wants, not even the chief rail engineer, so exactly who did want that crap?

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    It's more complicated that that. He said on WTTW last night that they simply aren't made anymore. So they had to use new technology anyway.

    Plus, the state legislature is mandating a system for all transit agencies to share the same fare payment system,

    But of course, you know I agree with you on sideway seats.

  • In reply to Kevin O’Neil:

    I don't think you understand, the CTA could have had the cards custom made, even if the current manufacturer doesn't make them. There are plenty of other chipmakers that could do it.
    Even if it cost $10 a card, it would still be cheaper to have 1,000,000 cards made. That's $10 million, which is only 2.2% of $454 million the Ventra system will end up costing. The Ventra cards cost $2.60 each to make.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    There is the legislative mandate and maybe the turnstiles are obsolete (the fare boxes were even said by the Auditor General to be).

    Maybe a complete audit of this program is in order. However, CTA resisted the Auditor General's audit in 2007, and certainly isn't going to volunteer for one now.

    Speaking of audit and deception, and my budget point, all the sudden CTA got into a huff when the RTA said that they were mortgaging the franchise with all the proposed debt. A thorough audit, rather than Claypool's and Karen Walker's word* would be a good idea. Won't happen, though.

    *Another deception. In 2012, she finally puts into the report how much CTA is losing on fuel hedges. Remember I mentioned that in 2009? And when the RTA asked Pace about it, the Pace minutes state that the answer is "they don't work."

    Kevin, do you really want me to go on with these?

  • Speaking of Chicago Tonight. On the March 15 "Week in Review" segment they had a panel of journalists discussing (among other things) the Ventra card. The first journalist explained that the purpose of the Ventra system was to allow suburbanites to use the same card on Metra as they do on Pace. The second journalist nodded her head in agreement and then added that a lot of poor people would be left out of the system because it required them to have bank accounts and many poor people don't have bank accounts.

    No matter how bad a job Forrest Claypool has done, both of these statements are very clearly refuted on the CTA and Ventra web sites. It would be nice if the press took a few minutes to read a web page (let alone do any in-depth investigation) to understand what they were reporting about rather than repeating the mass hysteria being circulated by the uninformed. But modern-day "journalism" has become simply quoting a spokesman for two sides of an issue no matter how patently absurd the statements of the spokesman are.

  • Most of the journalism is garbage. For instance several have taken aim at Tracy Swartz for picking up that the $3 ticket was a fare increase, but not that the 25 cent transfer fee was mandatory, and that the change to 52 was a cut, instead of an improvement.

    While they could have read the web site, Brian Steele said that it was up to CTA (him) to educate the public. Kevin at least indicates that Steele's boss hasn't done it yet.

    The CTA propaganda department has had a long history of this, so don't expect more from the journalists. Pace management is sometimes confused, but they are open. They post minutes.

  • Claypool hasn't been transparent about anything. We're losing bus service left and right and not learning about it until it's a done deal. And what's so horrible about the Chicago Cards that we suddenly need Ventra? I have yet to read an explanation of that.

  • In reply to Cheryl:

    Also two rounds of fare increases Emanuel and Claypool said were not fare increases, but on which they held hearings. With regard to one type of fare increase (reducing the discount on passes), Metra called their one a fare increase.

    But read up re the rationale for the open standards fare system.

  • In reply to Cheryl:

    Cheryl asked: "And what's so horrible about the Chicago Cards that we suddenly need Ventra? I have yet to read an explanation of that."

    See the answer I gave Scooter above. Claypool said on WTTW last night that they simply aren't made anymore. So they had to use new technology anyway.

    Plus, the state legislature is mandating a system for all transit agencies to share the same fare payment system,

  • I will say one thing about moving to Chicago right after six weeks in the Soviet Union, I understood right away how government works here. Same mindless obsession with secrecy, same pervasive corruption, same labyrinthine bureaucracy, same absolute unresponsiveness to any citizen unfortunate enough to lack connections. And the same daily experience of living under a government that's not out to serve you but out to get you. (And, to be fair, in both places a fair number of people honestly trying to do their work well in a system uncongenial to that.) Russia got a new ideology and a different set of thieves, but here we're essentially where we were forty years ago.

    I don't know what to make of Claypool. He seemed like somewhat of a reformer by Chicago standards (admittedly a low bar), and I was very slightly acquainted with him for a while and he seemed like a decent guy. But I have to admit I haven't followed his career closely. Maybe he's the CTA's Gorbachev: there's only a limited amount you can do with some systems, no matter how good your intentions.

  • In reply to rastewart:

    Chicago standards: As I mentioned before, the standard to which Claypool was previously compared was Todd Stroger. Stroger is so clueless that he thinks the Democratic committeemen are going to appoint him back to the county board after making a thorough mess of things and getting his butt handed to him in a primary.

    If any analogy applies, maybe Emanuel thinks Claypool is a technocrat. However, Emanuel eventually had to "part ways" with school CEO Brizard, for whom there was at least an executive search. But Emanuel and Claypool are essentially neighbors and apparently tight political friends.

  • Attention Kevin: I replied to your reply to my reply to my question about that other mysterious fee on the other thread. Thanks for staying on this fees issue!

  • In reply to CCWriter:

    I honestly don't know what that fee is for either. I can try to find out.

  • In reply to Kevin O’Neil:

    Yes, please!

  • News flash:

    Just minutes ago, Ventra updated its web site with new information about fees:

    Putting the pieces together, it appears that the mysterious $2 opt-out fee: My GUESS is that it is a fee for opting out of online monthly statements and getting paper statements mailed to you.

  • In reply to VernaB:

    Uh-oh. They have deleted all mention of funding the debit card account with a credit card from their web site.

    Sounds like those who objected to the "onerous" $2.95 fee got their wish.

  • Let me get this straight, the CTA privatizes fare collection and people go crazy when the winning bidders make money on fees not associated with riding the CTA? Who cares? Certainly the CTA brass dropped the ball about telling people there would be fees associated with the optional debit card side of the new card. What we should really worry about is the 12-year contract term. What happens when new, cheaper technologies emerge to improve fare collection on the CTA? We had the Chicago Cards for nearly 20 years and, according to Claypool, they are now extinct. A final point is that Ventra's promise to add 2,000 point-of-purchase locations is one of the most important and overlooked features of the contract.

  • In reply to GaryChicago:

    Basically the socialist bent that motivates most discussion of privatization, and especially transit.

    Not much different than complaints that the private concessionaire is raising parking meter rates, and Emanuel saying the city should get out of the contract. Of course, Emanuel had to be reminded that to get out of the contract, the money received up front would have to be refunded (this is called rescission), but the Daley administration spent that money.

    There may be an argument that more sunshine should have been shown on this contract before it was approved, but I noted before that it is about 17 months too late for that.

    As far as the risk of obsolescence, again it depends on the contract. However, since Cubic claims it sells solutions, not equipment, the onus should be on Cubic.

  • In reply to GaryChicago:

    Chicago Cards are only 12.5 years old & that was a pilot program.
    In reality, they're general usage is 10.5 years, not 20.

    Also, Cubic does make equipment, they made the current fareboxes & card readers.
    They also make the door control systems on the L trains.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    Sure they make equipment, but compare the Cubic Transportation Systems website ("We provide a range of revenue management systems solutions for our customers around the world") with the SPX site (Genfare), which shows fareboxes.

    Hence, my conclusion that the risk of obsolesce should be on Cubic. While Pace minutes state that it had to front money so Cubic could start installing the equipment, the impression given by most reports is that while CTA owns the current refrigerator sized transit vending machines, it won't own the "Ventra" ones.

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