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No money on that Ventra card? No problem for riders, union says

A Ventrtransit card reader.

A Ventra transit card reader.

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Updated: December 23, 2013 3:02PM

In the latest Ventra snafu, CTA customers are rolling through turnstiles despite having negative balances on their Ventra cards.

One deadbeat has enjoyed more than 120 rides while owing the system money, the head of the CTA’s rail union charged Thursday.

Robert Kelly, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, showed reporters a photo of a Ventra reader registering a $272.50 negative balance just before allowing one rail rider admission.

That indicates that passenger got more than 120 rides while in debt to the CTA’s new fare payment system, Kelly said.

Another rider told CTA workers he had four Ventra cards with negative balances, ranging from $7 to a $66, and a fifth one at home with a $139 negative balance that would still let him through, Kelly said.

“If the riding public has figured out `I can ride on a negative balance,’ why pay?” Kelly asked. “The million dollar question is, who is losing money?”

Officials Thursday insisted it wasn’t the CTA.

CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said the CTA’s Ventra operator — Cubic Transportation Systems — “bears all risk for any customer with a negative balance.’’ The CTA is “fully and immediately paid for each trip taken,’’ even if it’s taken by a rider who owes money, Chase said.

Cubic has been allowing passengers Ventra admission despite negative balances to “offer flexibility to those who had issues during the early part of the transition,” Chase said.

“Instead of keeping people from the system they depend on, Cubic wanted to continue allowing them access while issues with the system were being resolved,’’ Chase said.

But, she cautioned, “they intend to phase this out . . . in the coming weeks.’’

On Thursday, Kelly questioned whether Cubic is going to send “collection agencies” after deadbeat riders.

“By allowing a card to go negative, they are setting up a Pandora’s box of trouble,’’ Kelly said.

He said an independent investigator needed to step in before the amount of fares lost becomes unrecoverable. Kelly welcomed an RTA audit of Ventra ordered Wednesday by RTA Chairman Robert Gates Jr., who said he wants to know if a series of Ventra foul-ups have cost the CTA revenue.

Ventra’s snafus are becoming so frequent, Ventra has become a punchline. During an RTA meeting Wednesday, one RTA board member asked if the CTA was using “the same contractor that’s doing Obamacare” as its Ventra vendor. A new rap song on the internet pokes fun at Ventra and its oversight by CTA President Forrest Claypool and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

More than two months after Ventra’s rollout, the situation is “getting worse,’’ not better, Kelly said.

It may be time for the CTA to start considering other Ventra vendors, he said. Some aldermen have raised the same question.

Also Thursday, Kelly disputed the CTA’s estimate that 15,000 passengers got free rides during a Ventra reader meltdown at 60 rail stations during the Nov. 13 evening rush hour. CTA officials have said field personnel “monitoring activity at each rail station” provided the estimate but a week after the meltdown, officials still had not determined how much in lost fares they will seek to recover from Cubic.

Kelly said one report he knew of estimated 5,000 riders got free rides out of the Brown Line’s Merchandise Mart station alone — only one of 60 stations affected. He also questioned how CTA staff could have established accurate head counts if hordes of riders were streaming through opened gates at the height of the rush hour, as television reports and other video footage indicated.

His comments came one day before Claypool is due to begin weekly briefings on Cubic’s progress in meeting three new performance targets. Claypool set the targets after announcing the CTA was suspending all Ventra transition deadlines, and continuing to allow old fare products, until Cubic shaped up.


Twitter: @rosalindrossi

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