Who really benefits from the CTA's Ventra card?

In today’s Chicago Tribune, reporter Jon Hilkevitch provided a superb summary of the ridiculousness that is the CTA’s new Ventra card. His take: Fees, fees, fees with regard to the prepaid debit card and a lot of ambiguity as to the implementation of the new transit card system.

Below are my two immediate questions:

1. CTA revenue director Eric Reese stated that the Ventra card “‘is actually a means for people who don’t have bank accounts to be able to use and to be able to have the retail relationships that others have today'”.  Further, according to the article, “[t]he CTA expects to put Ventra cards in the hands of low-income people who currently don’t own a credit or debit card and who conduct many of their financial transactions at currency exchanges, which are renowned for charging high service fees.”

But wait! After reviewing the CTA’s website, it appears that deposits to the Ventra prepaid debit card have to be made in person via cash, or with a credit/debit card, or online. If you load the card online, you are charged a $2.95 fee unless you link the Ventra card to your bank account. I am confused how the CTA can claim this card is helping those without bank accounts as they will 1) have to continue to utilize the services of check-cashing shops in order to put money into their Ventra prepaid accounts and, 2) if they are able to somehow pay online, will be penalized for not linking their non-existent bank account to their prepaid debit account. Granted, they don’t have to take advantage of the prepaid option, but the CTA is selling this as an alternative for those without credit and/or bank accounts.

Further, if commuters choose to use the debit function, will they be liable for fraudulent charges if it is lost/stolen unlike traditional bank debit cards? Looking at their website, I honestly have no idea:

Q: Are funds on my Ventra Card protected if the card is lost or stolen?

A: Safety and security are critical features of Ventra. When you register your Ventra Card, the value on your Transit and Prepaid Debit Accounts is protected in the event of loss or theft.

I certainly hope that CTA does not adopt the current policy which states that they will freeze your account but will not refund any money fraudulently spent on a ChicagoCard if lost or stolen.

2. Again, if the Ventra card is replacing the current ChicagoCard in part to help low-income folks, why are the rates for those paying with cash being increased 33.3%? (for the EL ONLY). Yes, I understand that the system is cash-strapped and rate hikes are necessary to maintain the CTA’s infrastructure and overhead costs, however, it would seem that this hike will, in part, affect the very same population Reese claims the transit authority is working to help.

Last month, NBC 5 posted a story about the ramifications of the January 2013 CTA one-day pass fare hike on the city’s low-income population:

The new fare structure, which went into effect last month, hiked the cost of a one-day pass from $5.75 to $10. That’s a 74 percent increase, and part of what the agency labeled a “moderate” fare hike.

In both November and December, the CTA stated through press releases that it was tourists who primarily purchased the one-day “fun pass” that dates back in 1997. Transit officials now admit that was a mistake.

When asked to compare how seven-day and 30-day passes compare to the one-day pass at his currency exchange, Levin didn’t hesitate.

“The one-day pass by far gets the most traffic,” he said.

According to 2011 CTA records, the largest percentage of one-day passes — more than 25 percent of them — are sold on Chicago’s south side. Records show 7.7 million one-day passes were sold in Chicago that year at a cost of $44.5 million.

A little over a month later, those same officials inked the Ventra deal. Knowing that many Chicagoans already have trouble affording  a one-day pass, they OK’d a rate hike for those who don’t/can’t buy into the Ventra system; riders will now have to pay $3.00 for a single Ventra ticket (vs.  $2.25 if they use the card) for the EL*. According to the CTA, the $0.75 hike is attributed to a “$0.50 limited use fee” of the ticket and a $0.25  transfer fee, regardless of whether the rider uses the transfer. Check out this helpful Chicago Tribune table for the new lay of the (fare) land.

It seems that the convenience fees associated with the card can be avoided if one is savvy enough to read the fine print or opts out of the debit card all-together. But to state that this system is being implemented to, at least in part, benefit the city’s poorer population seems a bit disingenuous.

*Those who ride buses can continue to pay$ 2.25 in cash.

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    Annie Swingen

    Chicago-based hyperbole enthusiast. Mom to a kid and sometimes my mom. Overboard (1987) obsessed weirdo. I like the funnies in life.

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