CTA riders got $1.2 million in free rides thanks to Ventra snafus
BY ROSALIND ROSSI Transportation Reporter December 30, 2013 12:44PM
CTA riders use a Ventra kiosk at the California Blue Line station on Dec. 13, 2013. | Michael Jarecki/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 1, 2014 6:17AM
Ventra owes the CTA more than $1.2 million for about 930,000 free rides because of snafus with the agency’s new fare payment system since Oct. 1, CTA officials said Monday.
Bus and rail union officials questioned why the CTA started its count of lost revenue nearly a month into Ventra’s Sept. 9 systemwide rollout.
Kevin Peterson, assistant secretary of Citizens Taking Action, a transit advocacy group, also was skeptical.
“To say that suddenly, on Oct. 1, the system went down the toilet and before that it was fine and dandy makes no sense,’’ Peterson said. “We’re losing lots of money on this.’’
Reimbursement for lost fares because of Ventra’s technical problems is required under the CTA’s 12-year, $454 million contract with Ventra vendor Cubic Transportation Systems. A bill for $1,214,316 will be sent to Cubic “very soon,’’ CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said Monday.
The CTA started its lost revenue count Oct. 1 because during the first month of the systemwide rollout, Chase said, the majority of riders were not paying for Ventra on a per-ride basis. Most of those riders were college students with U-Passes who paid lump sums for unlimited rides while school is in session, she said.
Chase provided no specific count of U-pass vs. other riders for the month of September. U-Pass holders and Chicago Public School students actually started piloting the system in August, as soon as their classes began.
CTA documents indicate that by the end of the first week of Ventra’s Sept. 9 rollout to the general public, 17 percent of fares were purchased with Ventra cards. By the last full week of September, Ventra accounted for 28 percent of all rides.
“You don’t put a program in place and say, “We’ll give you the first month to screw up,’ ’’ said Robert Kelly, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, which represents CTA rail workers. “You start from the beginning. That’s common sense.’’
“There were problems from Day 1. Every day. They are still going on every day now,’’ said Keith Hill, a trustee of ATU Local 241, which represents CTA bus drivers.
“I think the count is inaccurate. I think there’s a lot more. I think they are shortchanging themselves,’’ Hill said.
“I got a feeling that come  we are going to be facing service cuts or another round of layoffs , due to the mishaps of Ventra,’’ he said.
CTA calculated its lost fare count for Oct. 1 through Dec. 15 mostly by comparing 2013 ridership data with historical counts of rides for that period, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said. U-Pass rides, rides tied to other passes and free rides required for low-income passengers were excluded from the count, Steele said.
Nearly 98 percent of the lost fares were racked up on CTA buses. Customers have been complaining that they have had to tap the new plastic Ventra cards, which have special radio-identification frequency chips, multiple times to register a “go.’’ Even this month, Hill said, some taps are still not registering on buses.
The count of lost fares covers a 2½-month period ending Dec. 15, but the CTA still has to calculate missing fares from the remainder of December, Steele said.
Bus tap problems have dropped dramatically since the CTA completed an upgrade of all bus fare readers Dec. 10, Steele said.
And CTA rail readers have not experienced widespread problems since 15,000 rush-hour riders poured through turnstiles for free because of a Nov. 13 server failure that affected 60 rail stations, Steele said.
The CTA worked with Cubic on the methodology for establishing the lost-fare estimate, Steele said, and “they indicated they will provide us reimbursement for those free rides.’’
CTA President Forrest Claypool announced on Nov. 5 that he would not dump the current fare-payment system or pay Cubic “a dime’’ until Cubic met three benchmarks involving tap times; functioning readers and vending machines, and Ventra hotline response times. Cubic was within a hairbreadth of meeting those benchmarks last week.
Steele said Monday that the CTA still has not determined for how long Cubic must meet the new benchmarks before the CTA agrees to pay it — and to resume the systemwide transition to Ventra that was supposed to start Dec. 15 but has since been suspended.
“Each and every day we get closer to restarting the clock,’’ Steele said. “At this point, we have not developed a rollout calendar.’’