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CTA restores fare options as shaky transition to Ventra continues

The CTA has restored fare options while it waits for vendor thruns Ventrincrease number customer support workers. | Sun-Times

The CTA has restored fare options while it waits for the vendor that runs Ventra to increase the number of customer support workers. | Sun-Times

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Updated: November 11, 2013 12:14PM

It was just the news Fern Fox McCain wanted to hear as she strolled up to the Ventra card vending machine at the Merchandise Mart’s L station.

The Chicago Transit Authority reversed course Wednesday and restored the fare options it took away just two days earlier as it tries to encourage riders like her to switch over to Ventra.

That means magnetic stripe cards are still for sale at CTA vending machines.

And yes, McCain and other Chicago Card holders can keep reloading money on their cards, for now.

“I’m so excited!” McCain said, walking away from the Ventra machine.

CTA President Forrest Claypool said the changes his agency tried to enforce Monday are now on hold while Ventra vendor Cubic Transportation triples from about 100 to 300 the number of operators in its customer service call centers. Claypool said that could take “several weeks.”

“We want our customers to have the full access to all transit fare payment options during a period in which we can get the customer support apparatus to be able to support the inquiries that are coming in — which have been unprecedented,” Claypool said.

Wait times for the Ventra helpline, (877) 669-8368, averaged about 30 minutes and peaked at 60 minutes Monday and Tuesday to get a customer service attendant on the line.

Claypool said magnetic stripe card users, or 75 percent of CTA ridership, have had an easy transition to the Ventra card. The CTA also said in a statement that 400,000 unique card users have tapped their Ventra card 11 million times in five weeks, representing upwards of 40 percent of ridership.

But it said registered Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus holders were promised Ventra cards in the mail with easy access instructions. That, the CTA said, “has not been executed effectively.”

“We’re sending out 110,000 new emails to Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus customers,” Claypool said Wednesday, “with very clear, simple directions on how to activate their cards.”

Meanwhile, the CTA stood by its remaining deadlines for the Ventra rollout.

That means the CTA will stop accepting the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus on Nov. 15. Reloading money onto magnetic stripe cards will no longer be an option that day, either. Magnetic stripe card users must switch over to Ventra by Dec. 15.

It will need those deadlines to force customers like McCain to finally use the Ventra card, it seems. She was among those who said they spent nearly an hour on hold with Ventra’s helpline earlier this week.

McCain said she doesn’t yet have a Ventra card, but she almost bought one Wednesday.

“I’m putting it off,” she said. “I’m reloading my CTA card.”

• The CTA board also approved a plan Wednesday to offer permanent bus service on the west end of the 31st/35th streets bus route after a year-long service trial, along with the addition of new service to the 31st Street Beach during summer months.

Since September 2012, the CTA has been offering experimental service that included extending service on the No. 35 bus route west along 31st Street between Kedzie and Cicero avenues.

Service along the route extension will continue daily between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m. every 10 to 20 minutes depending on the time of day. Hours of service east of Kedzie will remain the same, from about 4 a.m. until 12:30 a.m.

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