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CTA riders unhappy with Ventra’s rush-hour meltdown

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Updated: December 15, 2013 11:56AM

CTA employees waved thousands of rush-hour commuters through Ventra turnstiles for free Wednesday evening after 165 fare readers malfunctioned at 60 rail stations.

CTA officials estimated the agency gave away 15,000 free rides during the meltdown and said they will bill the Ventra operator for the lost fares.

The problem was linked to a “server failure” that resulted in “intermittent rippling effect” on some readers, CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said. The system downtime varied from 15 to 90 minutes.

“It’s not every day you get a free ride,’’ one CTA attendant at the Merchandise Mart told Brown and Purple line riders, welcoming them through an open gate.

The glitches occurred just hours after CTA President Forrest Claypool told reporters that Ventra’s performance had improved since his announcement last week that he was suspending all Ventra transition deadlines until Ventra’s $454 million contractor — Cubic Transportation Systems — met some benchmarks.

Especially on the rail side, Claypool said, “Based on initial raw data we’re seeing much better performance.’’ But he could not produce any specifics and would not venture a guess on when Cubic might meet its benchmarks.

Earlier Wednesday, CTA board members agreed to let yet a second outsider help the CTA monitor Ventra. Last month, the CTA hired Omicron Technologies for up to $245,000 to make “courtesy calls” to customers who had not activated cards they were supposed to receive in the mail.

On Wednesday, board members hired Public Services PS Inc. for $619,500 to provide “professional consulting services” on multiple projects through the end of 2014, including work on Ventra. Claypool could not say how much of the contractor’s time would be devoted to Ventra vs. other work.

Public Services PS has expertise in“financial metrics and management,’’ Claypool said, and its latest CTA contract includes working with the CTA’s internal auditor and chief financial officer to set up a system to permanently audit and manage Ventra data.

“We have to monitor” Ventra, Claypool said. “We have to do that every day, every month, every year. That’s part of our job.’’

Since its rollout two months ago, CTA users have complained of everything from double-billing to long hold times at call centers. Claypool has vowed not to pay Cubic a dime until 99 percent of taps on card readers register a payment within 2.5 seconds; 99 percent of Ventra readers and vending machines work, and 99 percent of calls to Ventra are answered in no more than five minutes.

Cubic seemed to be stumbling across the system Wednesday night. Social media burned up with rush-hour reports of Ventra reader malfunctions.

At State and Lake, Ron Clifton, 64, tried unsuccessfully to get his Ventra card to work at three different turnstiles before an attendant waved him through.

Clifton, a medical technologist from Berwyn, summed up his Ventra experience in one word: “Lousy.”

“It’s frustrating,’’ Clifton said. “It’s like playing the lottery or a slot machine because you never know what you are going to get.’’

Said Portia Ballard at the Merchandise Mart station: “I hate Ventra.’’

Wednesday’s evening rush-hour problems emerged just a day after Ventra complaints dominated a public hearing on the CTA’s budget. Speakers called Ventra a “fiasco” on par with the city’s troubled 75-year parking-meter lease.

In a bit of good news for CTA users Wednesday, CTA board members unanimously approved a $1.38 billion operating budget that has no fare increases and no service cuts in the next calendar year.

Contributing: Art Golab


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