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Ventra card complaints dominate CTA budget hearing

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Updated: December 14, 2013 6:35AM

The only public hearing on the Chicago Transit Authority’s proposed “good news” budget turned into a giant Ventra dump fest Tuesday night, with speakers calling the new fare payment system a “fiasco” on par with the city’s troubled parking meter deal.

Megan Groves blasted the CTA for hiring a private company — called Cubic Transportation Systems — for $454 million to operate Ventra. She likened the deal to when “Mayor Daley sold out the parking” in a 75-year lease of Chicago’s parking meters.

“I for one will not sit idly by while my city gets sold out brick by brick,’’ said Groves, 34, of Wicker Park. “I urge the CTA to end its partnership with Ventra. ... Public services should stay public.’’

Kevin Peterson of the transit advocacy group Citizens Taking Action called Ventra “a fiasco” and told CTA President Forrest Claypool “you need to resign. Forrest Gump is lovable; you’re not.’’

Georgette Kirkendall, 25, of Marquette Park, said she’s had problems with her Ventra U-Pass for college students from the start, including erroneous charges.

“Ventra is absolutely worthless. I don’t want it in my city,’’ Kirkendall said.

Cubic’s parent company, Cubic Corp., also was blasted as an “evil company” for operating a defense contracting arm. Kirkendall called the firm’s military work “poisonous” and taped a skull-and-crossbones poison sign to the lectern as she spoke to illustrate her point.

Faced with an onslaught of Ventra complaints, ranging from poor customer service to double-billing, Claypool last week restored old fare payment options until Cubic meets some performance measures.

The CTA merely hired Cubic to operate Ventra, just as it would hire a firm to provide buses or rebuild track, and expects to save $5 million a year by doing so, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said after Tuesday’s public hearing. “In no way” is the CTA giving up any control of fare policy, he said.

Though Ventra was the focus of most public comments Tuesday, it was a mere blip in the CTA’s 186-page budget. The cost of the transition to Ventra was folded into unspecified “other expenses” that are expected to increase $9.6 million next fiscal year.

CTA officials called the $1.38 million proposed operating budget a “good news” budget as it did not pack any fare increases or service cuts. It reflects a 3 percent increase from this year’s operating funds spending forecast. CTA Board members are scheduled to vote on the budget Wednesday.

However, a civic watchdog group urged the CTA to study fares based on distance traveled or peak-hour usage, saying the proposed budget included “overly optimistic” expectations of state funding increases for reduced-fare riders. The Civic Federation in effect urged the CTA to prepare now for a rainy day by studying fare measures currently in use in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco that could boost CTA revenues in the future.

“The CTA has enormous financial challenges going forward,’’ said Civic Federation President Laurence Msall. “This would give the CTA options in the future. ...

“Zone-based fares have been used in other cities. It’s reasonable that the farther you travel on transportation, the more you pay.’’ And, higher fares during the rush hour would “smooth congestion and incent people to travel in non-peak hours,’’ Msall said.

The Civic Federation noted that the CTA needs $844 million annually to keep its stock in good repair, but has only budgeted an average $591 million a year in its five-year capital plan. Pension, labor and health care tabs also add annual pressure, Msall said.

In addition, this fiscal year, a state decision to reduce the CTA’s 2013 subsidy for reduced-fare riders by $7 million at mid-year contributed to an unexpected $10 million CTA deficit. The Civic Federation accused the CTA of being “overly optimistic” in assuming that the state would restore previous reduced-fare funding levels.

If no such increase materializes, the Civic Federation wrote in a 44-page analysis, “the CTA will face a $7-$8 million deficit mid-year, which could precipitate fare increases or service cuts.”

Added the watchdog group: “The CTA may be relying too heavily on funding from the State of Illinois in FY2014 without fully accounting for the State’s continued fiscal deterioration.’’

The CTA’s Steele said lawmakers representing the CTA service area “have been supportive of restoring the funding” and even if it falls through, the shortfall would represent less than .5 percent of the CTA’s operating budget.

Washington D.C.’s Metrorail and San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (or BART) both base fares on the distance traveled, and Metrorail imposes additional charges for rush hour and late weekend travel. Msall noted that CTA now charges the same flat elevated fare for Loop travel to Oak Park or Evanston as to Chicago’s West Side.

Although Steele said the CTA is not currently examining such options, a handful of citizens supported distance-based CTA fares in online comments about the agency’s 2012 proposed budget.

“Traveling further should cost more. It’s the principal behind taxi fares, airline fares, shipping/delivery fees,’’ wrote one commentor.

Retorted another: “I don’t think … people who ride up from 95th Street to clean offices downtown should have to pay more than the people riding to the Loop from Lincoln Park to work in those offices. ‘’

The CTA’s less than 24-hour gap between the budget hearing and the budget vote drew the ire of the Citizens Taking Action transit group. Its secretary, Charles Paidock, charged that the CTA had not allowed enough time “to incorporate any changes in the middle of the night to the budget’’ if valid concerns were raised at the sole public hearing. Due to the short turnaround, Paidock told fellow speakers Tuesday night, “absolutely nothing you contribute will be incorporated into the budget.’’

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