3 reasons why the CTA is switching to Ventra card payment system

With all the problems the CTA and Cubic Transportation Systems have faced in the rollout of the new fare payment system, I've heard a number of riders ask, "Why do we have to switch anyway? The Chicago Card Plus system was working just fine."

Here are three reasons why:

  1. An Illinois state law requires the three area transit agencies to adopt a universal fare system by 2015.
  2. The existing fare-payment system was reaching the end of its useful lifespan, with outdated equipment and technology that requires much more ongoing maintenance and repair.
  3. This new system allows the CTA to get out of the fare collecting and money handling business and focus on its core competency of providing mass transit for Chicagoans.

Ventra logo

Universal fare system: After the law went into effect, the CTA contracted with Cubic to pay them $454 million over 10 years to develop the contactless payment system using the Ventra card. Pace also decided to adopt the same system. And now Metra is looking to jump on board the Ventra bandwagon.

Outmoded current fare system: Continuing Chicago Card/Chicago Card Plus is not an option, according to the CTA. "The chip used in the Chicago Card is about 17 years old — well beyond the typical lifespan of this kind of chip," said a CTA spokesperson. "In fact, the main reason it was manufactured as long as it was is because it was fabricated using the same equipment producing the chips in the ‘90s video game Game Boy, which kept the technology alive long after its normal life span. Once Game Boy production ended (mid-2000s), CTA bought the remaining chips to use in Chicago Cards." No chip producer was going to produce the same chip (because of its outdated technology).

The CTA also said it decided to move instead to the open standards, contactless fare collection system.

No more handling money: By having Cubic handle the responsibilities of day-to-day fare collection and maintenance, "the CTA can focus on its core mission of providing bus and train rides," said the CTA. In fact, the CTA will save an estimated $5 million a year by eliminating collection activities and maintenance on an aging fare system. In addition to the cost savings and efficiency benefits, the new fare system also shifts the risk associated with collecting fares (credit and debit transactions) to the contractor.
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  • fb_avatar

    Great summary. Perhaps Metra will benefit from the CTAs learning curve.

  • CTA had announced the project in 2009 August, 2009 Report. The requirement was inserted into the RTA Act by PA 097-0085, effective 7/7/2011.* So, the statement that state law mandated CTA to do this (or at least impelled CTA to do this) is a lie. The law was only to stick it to Metra. Metra may be looking into meeting the open standards mandate, but it is clear it is not jumping onto Ventra, except to use transit value to buy paper tickets. Read Orseno's remarks.

    In that neither CTA nor Pace is doing away with the GFI fareboxes,** and CTA just issued a contract for money transfer indicates that the third rationale that "This new system allows the CTA to get out of the fare collecting and money handling business" is a lie.

    The "we won't make the chips" one is also questionable. SEPTA is taking 3 years to convert, and is using Xerox.

    Kevin, why do you feel the need to republish this rank propaganda? I'm serious about that question.
    *That Act also says that " By January 1, 2013, the Authority, in consultation with the Service Boards and the general public, must develop a policy regarding transfer fares on all fixed-route public transportation services provided by the Service Boards." Ask Mike Payne if there has been any compliance with that law.

    **Pace also has just awarded a contract to rebuild their GFI fareboxes.

  • In reply to jack:

    Since only one link at a time, here's the one to the public act.

  • In reply to jack:

    From the Public Act you linked to:
    "By January 1, 2015, the Authority must develop and implement a regional fare payment system. The regional fare payment system must use and conform with established information security industry standards and requirements of the financial industry. The system must allow consumers to use contactless credit cards, debit cards, and prepaid cards to pay for all fixed-route public transportation services."

    This is why Ventra must use a pre-paid debit capable card. It is also why Metra using transit value on Ventra cards to pay for tickets is within the scope of the law (albeit a wasteful and cumbersome process, if Metra pursues that route, compared to other technology being explored by their partner railroads).

    Accepting cash on buses is still necessary, but implementation of a universal card which you will be able to reload at hundreds of retail partners across the region sets up a platform which may make cash payments on buses unecessary (though it will take a long time to get to that coverage across a 10 million person region).

  • In reply to ArchiJake:

    Correct, the Ventra/OSFS thing started way before.

    The reason is that Cubic uses a proprietary chip in the Chicago card. The supplier of this chip (S. Korea), stopped producing them.

    So, the main reason is that we were going to run out of cards.

    CTA had the option to do what Washington DC did, which was upgrade all the readers to accept standard ISO14443 cards, which are available from hundreds of suppliers.

    CTA & WMATA use the same backend Cubic system.

    CTA decided not to do this and look to privatize the whole thing, based on ISO14443 ironically. WMATA is prudently moving through their RFP trying to avoid any vendor lock-in and trying to deliver as much innovation as possible.

  • In reply to Windy_Denizen:


  • In reply to ArchiJake:

    1. It doesn't say that Ventra has to include a prepaid debit card. It says that the fare collection system has to accept debit and prepaid cards " to pay for all fixed-route public transportation services." I suppose that means prepaid debit cards issued by Walmart or currency exchanges, to pay the fares. In any event, this passed after CTA sent out the first request for proposals.

    2. The long time is what makes this unfeasible, especially given the low density of retail outlets in the suburbs, despite the invalid comparisons Pace makes in its literature.

    3. As I said before, tell me what other provisions of the RTA and MTA Acts the transit agencies around here obey, other than the provision in this one that Metra explore wifi "only if the service
    can be provided with no cost to the Commuter Rail Division." Metra said it couldn't. It and Pace both have trackers, but both are junk. Again CTA had theirs first, and before this legislation, and the CTA one is pretty good by comparison.

  • In reply to jack:

    And for the Orseno statement.

  • In reply to jack:

    Yup, 3 pretty lame excuses:

    1. Blame it on Springfield
    2. Obsolescence made us do it
    3. Record of success in outsourcing financials

  • In reply to leoklein:

    1. Especially since Springfield didn't make us do what we decided to do 2 years before.
    2. Maybe.
    3. What????

  • I thought they were just bored and looking for a way to screw with us.

  • In reply to Cheryl:

    There were the crowd reduction plan and annual budgets for that.

    I still think this is like the NABI case--it might have made sense in 2009, but the execution was so abysmal that I end up agreeing with you that a lot of people ought to be fired, and if Cubic doesn't get its act straight, a big lawsuit ought to be filed. Maybe the refusal to pay (as finally was the case with NABI) will bring it to that. Then CTA can have Cubic yank out this junk, and send out another RFP.

  • 1. I just don't believe that a different chip could have been used, possibly with new card readers.
    2. As for the universal fare card, there's no reason Metra couldn't have joined up earlier, except for Metra's refusal to move into 20th Century fare collection, let alone the 21st.
    3. Outsourcing the money collection will prove to be the CTA's equivalent of the city's parking meter contract, an enormous ripoff!

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    Metra is the obvious one brought up with regard to the distance fare debate a couple of days ago.

    As Orseno pointed out, there would have to be a means for on train fare auditing. Can you imagine the stink if everyone had to tap off a Metra train or be charged the fare for Zone K?

    Of course, I do agree that Metra is the finest commuter railroad of the 19th century. However, the sages at the Illinois General Assembly aren't going to bring them into the 21st. They can't get the CTA to comply with law.

  • In reply to jack:

    I have little doubt that an app & addon device to an iPad mini or Android pad could have been developed for Metra. The rider would tap or give their smartcard to the conductor, who would then easily be able to tap in the start & end zones. The conductors could then give a simple dated receipt of some sort.
    In addition, a fare machine could be placed in the stations & on the platforms. LA Metrolink uses one for single ride & ten ride tickets. The fare machine dispenses single ride & validates ten ride tickets & cancels one out when inserted. All that's necessary is a receipt printed for that day which would indicate the zones to be traveled.

    Metra simply doesn't want to come into the 21st Century, it must be dragged, kicking & screaming into it!

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    Acknowledging the last sentence, you tell us why SEPTA is only talking about implementing something for regional rail in 2015, and MBTA and NY MTA are only vaguely talking about it. Those 3 systems are the only ones we can say are comparable to Metra in size in the U.S.

    Metra (and the IC before it) have ticket vending machines. The ME riders demanded that the turnstiles be removed (much to one rider's chagrin). Your solution still depends on paper receipts.

    Just because the incompetents at CTA decided to plunge over the cliff doesn't mean that the even more incompetents at Metra should do so, as the cheerleading directors of Pace repeatedly said. At least they had enough sense to get grants for 2 studies. Did you apply for those contracts?

  • In reply to jack:

    I don't want a return to those idiotic turnstiles & the requirement to swipe out.
    All I'm saying is that by requiring payment up front before boarding with a receipt issued by a machine, all the conductors would have to do is walk through the cars & look at them. The few who didn't do that, would be hit with an even higher pay on train surcharge than the current $3.
    There would be far fewer instances of conductors not being able to get to everyone, due to heavy passenger loads.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    But that isn't an open media system, just a paper system with something else printing the paper.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    To clarify, the Metra "Electric" (and IC before it) have....

  • All that technical part is probably true, and I won't dispute that some kind of change had to be made. But this?

    Reason number 5 (after Cheryl's) is that, as Scooter suggested, it's an opportunity for somebody to rip everybody off. The fact that it was so poorly planned and executed is, to me, a big neon sign flashing "follow the money!"

    And there should be rotten vegetables thrown in Daley Plaza, probably next summer after the trial and conviction take place. I graciously offer Claypool and his cronies an extension until Thanksgiving to come clean enough to qualify for cream pies instead.

  • fb_avatar

    Why is there no mention of the debit card fees? This is the biggest hoodwink of all.

    NO ONE was asking for a prepaid debit card. CTA was hoping to make money off of poor people through prepaid debit fees, joining the ranks of such fine organizations as payday lenders.

    Now instead of carrying around a card with a picture of a bus or train, or tourists going home with a Chicago souvenir, it's an ugly fake-looking credit card. It looks like those junk mail credit card offers you get in your mailbox.

    They had 3 years to get this right, and it's sad how during the initial weeks of this rollout Brian Steele and others blamed customers for the problems. Instead of delaying the rollout after the massive problems, they stuck to their guns. It's like no one who makes decisions ever used a Ventra card to get on a bus.

  • In reply to Jason Treadwell:

    At least there was some publicity about the pitfalls of the debit card, and the debit card isn't what brought the riding public to its knees. No one needs the debit card for anything, but if the system didn't become so bad that da Mare told Forrest Gump to do something about it, we would have already passed the last deadline for putting value on old media, and maybe 20% of the riders wouldn't be able to get on a CTA or Pace transit vehicle. At least CTA was able to placate some transit benefits people by handing out mag stripe cards.

  • In reply to Jason Treadwell:

    My guess is the people who made these decisions don't use a Ventra card. And they're certainly not the people who would activate the debit feature.

  • Turning to the Tribune Ventra is going up from one new problem a day to three in one day relating to the transit benefits program, including that CTA set up a competing one to the preexisting RTA program, and at some point intends to charge administrators an additional fee.

    Kevin, maybe you can get from Steve Mayberry an explanation for the three reasons for this, and why Ventra problems keep cascading? Hilkevitch will never be out of material.

  • I can't buy a 30 day pass online. Ventra doesn't like my street address and if I make one up, I'm assuming my credit card company won't like that. So I guess I'm making a trip to a train station today that I wouldn't need to make if their software just worked.

  • In reply to Cheryl:

    Or you can be like Mancow, and just move the Emanuel's home town of Wilmette, which will take care of several problems at once.

  • Someone who shouldn't be making money off this is making money off this. That's really the only reason able explanation for why they are doing this to us.

  • So they had to use a new 'chip'. Okay, I get that. But you'd think the move from an older chip to a newer one would result in an improvement in the sensitivity and accuracy of of the process (i.e. card swiping) -- instead of the exact opposite. Hardware is upgraded all the time but rarely is obsolescence used as an excuse for inferior service.

  • http://chicagoist.com/2013/11/19/one_shot_ventra_sucks.php

  • In reply to Cheryl:

    And this was done without getting an artists' grant.

  • Kevin you know damn well this being Chicago, someone got a kickback.

  • These reasons are all a little silly.

    1. There's no reason they could not have installed machines able to read Chicago Cards. If anything, they should be easier and cheaper to make with improved technology, not harder.

    2. Pretty similar to 1, even if the specific chips that were used were no longer being made, cheaper ones that function the same could have been made. There might be an upfront cost to design them, but that would go down as more cards were being used. The other equipment could also have been upgraded as necessary with new electronics that achieved the same thing. (My company has done extensive work for a major electrocomponents distributor; this stuff could have been done easily)

    3. Is there some reason that money handling couldn't have been contracted out without using a new card system? I can't think of a reason.

  • In reply to Myshkin:

    As I noted above, money handling, in the sense of armored car service, has been contracted out by the CTA. Not sure if this is only for bus fare boxes or also included cleaning out the TVMs in the rapid transit stations.

    Hence, the only conceivable link is as someone suggested above--if the system were open enough, people would use cards instead of cash. However, since bank cards without transit registration count as cash, I rather stick 9 quarters into a bus fare box, and let CTA pay for the armored car service.

  • Of the 3 reasons supplied for this change, I can tell you #2 and #3 are a complete joke -- they do not exist.

    Let me translate what #2 and #3 really mean:

    #2 = The software and hardware was working perfectly fine with the old system, and EVERYONE could see this clearly (riders and CTA staff) but the old system was basically coasting along without having a way of sucking "new" monies out of riders. In other words; the old system worked TOO GOOD for TOO cheap. They need a way to increase costs. This takes us to reason #3 below!

    #3 = CTA doesn't need to "get out of the money collecting business" -- any company that provides any type of service, by default, is in the business of collecting money. CTA offers one service - RIDES - and there is absolutely no reason that after decades of success, any bus company should need to suddenly hire outside service providers to come in and handle their money. ALL this accomplishes is putting more money in more rich peoples' hands, by bringing MORE middlemen into play! You already are expected to pay a minimum of FIVE DOLLARS to get a Ventra card... isn't that cute? As opposed to just walking up to the older transit card machines and depositing the EXACT amount you need and being given a card instantly.

    Sounds like Reasons 2 and 3 just squashed themselves in the "need" department and revealed themselves in the PROFIT department. Surprise, surprise. How does nobody else see this?

    Regarding reason #1 (the supposed Illinois law that requires a common payment platform) -- That can be accomplished without switching to a platform that is riddled with ERRORS, requires HIGHER FEES even before it's completely rolled out, and physically takes the rider 2 to 9 times longer to actually purchase or add money to if they're literally pressed for time.

    Remember the days when you could put actual money into the slot ON THE BUS and be given a transfer card right there? Did anybody ever think that THAT's our solution to the current new law? Everyone uses money, right? Stop forcing people through hoops to get their money onto cards that require extra fees and don't work properly!

  • fb_avatar

    If the Ventra system cost $454 million and the CTA stands to save $5 million per year, it will take over 90 years to break even.

  • In reply to Brad Cook:

    Do you have a free manner for CTA to collect its fares? Because that's the comparison you are making.

    It isn't like if you buy a Prius instead of a Corolla and get the payback on the hybrid difference. Your comparison is to buying a Prius compared to nothing. Thus, to get the break even, you need the cost of the obsolete mag card system.

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