September 2, 2014
Long-awaited Ventra transit cards go on sale at Chicago Transit Authority stations and 700 retail outlets Monday, offering travelers a new, faster tap-and-go way to pay for bus and train rides.
Some riders worried about long lines at the bright-blue Ventra machines say they won’t even try to buy Ventra cards Monday — but they don’t have to. Old fare cards will be accepted by the CTA and suburban Pace until Dec. 15.
Monday “is not like some magic cutoff that, if you don’t have a Ventra card, you’re out of luck,’’ CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said last week. “We’re going to spend several months running two systems, so there’s plenty of time for people to get Ventra cards before Dec. 15.”
But regular riders might find themselves forced to convert to Ventra before Dec. 15. Express and visitor pass machines will be decommissioned as of Monday. The number of old fare card vending machines will start dwindling this month, and they will disappear by Nov. 15.
Plus, the ability to reload fares on to existing cards ends Oct. 7 for Chicago Card Plus and Chicago Cards, and on Nov. 15 for stored-value magnetic-stripe paper cards.
The best advice for regular CTA riders: Spend down your existing plastic or paper cards this month and get in the Ventra groove.
Despite months of hype, some riders didn’t even realize that Monday is Ventra’s systemwide launch day.
“I saw signs saying Ventra was coming soon, but I didn’t know it was Monday,’’ said Pairlee Dulin, of Rogers Park, who rides a CTA bus and the Brown Line. “I don’t even know how to buy the Ventra stuff. I don’t think the CTA did a good job.”
Others in the dark about Ventra refuse to worry about it.
“I know nothing about it,’’ said Keith Sulzer, 25, an L rider who lives in Lake View. “All I know is I’m getting a card in the mail, and it’s replacing my Chicago Card Plus. “I’m going to figure out all the other stuff when I have to.”
One card, two systems
CTA officials emphasize the convenience of Ventra cards, which riders can use to pay fares on the CTA and Pace — from the city to the suburbs — with the tap of a single plastic card embedded with a radio frequency chip. That card can be a new Ventra card or a debit or credit card containing the same kind of chip. Eventually, many smartphones should work, too. Plus, the Metra suburban train line is trying to jump on the Ventra bandwagon.
A Ventra card also includes a debit option, with an assortment of debit fees attached, but the feature is optional and seniors and disabled people won’t even be offered it on reduced fare cards, which should start arriving in their mailboxes this month.
Ventra passed the 1-million-tap mark just last week, officials said. That’s because college kids, Chicago Public School students, Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus users have been trying out Ventra cards since last month. CTA officials saythat in a handful of cases, it took a few hours for fare credits to show up on new student Ventra cards, but they think they have fixed the problem.
CTA officials have scheduled 27 days between Sept. 17 and Dec. 13 when customers can visit specific locations to transfer existing balances to new cards. Balances from as many as five old cards can be transferred at one time but must add up to a minimum of $5. Passes for one, three, seven or 30 days cannot be transferred, so these should be spent down.
From January through March 2014, balances of any amount can be transferred by mailing in old cards to the Ventra Customer Service Center, at 165 N. Jefferson.
After purchase, customers can arrange to have fares automatically reloaded by credit card or bank account if their transit balance falls below a certain amount.
It’s an option that makes Ellie Ribitwer nervous now that much of the CTA fare-collection process will be in the hands of private vendors. CTA officials say the move will save the transit agency $50 million over 12 years.
“I would never link my credit card to another card,’’ said Ribitwer, 23, a Brown Line rider. “I trust the CTA, I don’t trust Ventra. I don’t know what Ventra is.’’
Minimum fare vs. $5 purchase fee
All users are required to load a minimum fare amount on their cards at the time of purchase. The minimum ranges from 5 cents at Ventra vending machines; $1 at retail locations or the Ventra Customer Service Center, and $5 online or by phone. Through Dec. 15, users won’t have to pay an additional $5 purchase fee.
After Dec. 15, the $5 purchase fee kicks in, but it can be converted to transit credit if a buyer registers the Ventra card by providing name, phone number, address and date of birth.
Registration has advantages, CTA officials say. It allows customers to monitor their accounts online, by phone or by mobile app. It also protects transit balances incase a card is lost or stolen.
New disposable card
By Dec. 15, CTA train riders will have to buy new Ventra cards or convert their credit or debit cards to ones with radio-frequency chips. Or they can buy new disposable, paper one-day passes or a $3 single-fare ticket, which carries an extra 50-cent convenience fee and an automatic 25-cent transfer fee.
Buses will continue to accept cash, charging 25 cents more than a preloaded fare, as they do now.
For more information, go to ventrachicago.com.