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CTA suspends switchover deadlines for problem-plagued Ventra

A Ventrmachine CTA statiEvanston. The CTA suspended switchover deadlines Tuesday after problems have plagued rollout new transit card system.

A Ventra machine at a CTA station in Evanston. The CTA suspended switchover deadlines Tuesday after problems have plagued the rollout of the new transit card system. | Sun-Times Media files

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Updated: December 7, 2013 6:20AM

The CTA is suspending all deadlines for switching over to problem-plagued Ventra — a new fare payment system that has left too many customers “confused and frustrated,’’ CTA President Forrest Claypool told the City Club on Tuesday.

Claypool said he won’t pay the Ventra contractor a dime until it meets three new benchmarks: 99 percent of calls to Ventra must be answered in no more than five minutes; 99 percent of vending machines and readers must work, and 99 percent of payment taps on readers must register in no more than in 2.5 seconds.

“Our promise to our customers is that this system will be fixed,’’ Claypool said one day after the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that two alderman were calling for a City Council hearing on Ventra. One called the Ventra rollout a “debacle.’’

Claypool even summoned a top executive of Ventra contractor Cubic Transportation Systems to the microphone to address the City Club.

Richard Wunderle, who heads Cubic’s North American operations, apologized to the crowd that initially rippled with laughter when Claypool said he was going to talk to the powerhouse gathering about Ventra.

“This transition period wasn’t our shining hour and for that I want to apologize,’’ Wunderle told City Club spectators. “We won’t fail.’’

Pressed later by reporters, Wunderle said he expected to meet the new benchmarks in “weeks.” Until then, magnetic-striped cards will continue to be sold at CTA stations, and Chicago Cards and Chicago Card Plus cards will still be accepted. Magnetic-stripe vending machines won’t be deactivated and removed on Nov. 15, as originally scheduled.

Claypool would say only that deadlines were being pushed back “to a date to be determined,’’ based on Cubic meeting its benchmarks.

The new benchmarks address complaints of excessive hold times at Ventra call centers and electronic fare readers that don’t seem to register Ventra payments — or take excessively long to do so.

The readers have to call up account information before registering a payment, and some CTA employees have incorrectly interpreted that time lag as a malfunctioning machine and waived customers through without paying, Claypool said.

Cubic, which won a contract worth up to $454 million to operate Ventra, has since put a special “screen” on fare readers that tells customers — and CTA customer service workers — that fares are being processed.

And although Cubic officials said they could not make Ventra cards display a remaining account balance with each tap on a reader, they said readers should now alert riders if their balances dip below $10.

Claypool said the problem that made him angriest was the long hold times faced by CTA riders who called the Ventra customer service center.

“The biggest self-inflicted wound here was the low-tech issue — the call center,’’ Claypool said. “I was very upset about that.’’

Initially, Cubic planned for its call centers to receive double the number of calls that other transit call centers it operates had experienced. It still wound up overwhelmed.

And although Cubic later agreed to triple its call center operators by Nov. 1, CTA officials say Cubic has promised to add even more — and to monitor calls to make sure that employees are answering them promptly and efficiently.

Claypool’s announcement comes less than a week after the head of the CTA’s rail union urged him to suspend Ventra deadlines if the CTA couldn’t institute a “foolproof” system. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308 President Robert Kelly said last week that Ventra was so problem-plagued that union employees working at stations as customer service reps were being “verbally attacked daily” by frustrated Ventra customers.


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