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CTA boss: Ventra not up to snuff but has seen ‘dramatic’ improvements

Updated: January 6, 2014 12:48PM

CTA President Forrest Claypool on Wednesday refused to say when the CTA would dump its old fare system and move 100 percent to Ventra, but insisted the problems with the agency’s new fare payment system could be fixed.

Glitches with fare readers on buses still nag riders, and too many callers to Ventra’s hotline are not receiving answers on their first interaction, Claypool told reporters after a special Regional Transportation Authority presentation on the CTA budget and Ventra.

“I don’t want to speculate” on when the CTA will convert full-scale to Ventra — something originally planned for Dec. 15, Claypool said. There’s “no timeline” for doing so, he said, but “we will fix this system.”

More than three months into Ventra’s rollout, “We’re going to take it slowly because there’s a lot more work to be done,” Claypool told RTA board members. “We’re going to be patient here. The main thing is to get it right.”

Cubic Transportation Systems, the CTA’s Ventra vendor, is making “dramatic progress” processing rail payments, with 99.8 percent of all taps on rail station readers being accepted in 2.5 seconds or less, Claypool said.

Similar numbers were being racked up on buses – but only on those with upgraded reader software. About 60 percent of the bus fleet is still missing such upgrades, but those should be completed this week, Claypool said.

Claypool also revealed Wednesday that only a “minimal” number of riders with Ventra cards have chosen to exercise the controversial and optional debit feature on them.

A Cubic spokeswoman refused on Tuesday to release the number of Ventra debit card holders to the Chicago Sun-Times, saying “for competitive reasons, we do not disclose numbers specific to client programs.” Claypool did not have an exact number Wednesday.

In addition, CTA statistics released Wednesday indicate seniors have been reluctant to activate their Ventra cards. The RTA has mailed Ventra senior and disabled reduced and free fare cards to 490,000 of 545,441 of those requesting such cards, but only 39 percent have activated them, CTA tallies indicated.

RTA chief of staff Jordan Matyas said actually, even more Ventra cards have been mailed, but “We believe many seniors and disabled have not yet activated their new cards because of confusion regarding the Ventra system, lack of convenient balance transfer events and no immediate date by which they must switch to a new card.”

Claypool has said that Cubic won’t receive a dime until it meets three performance benchmarks involving call center hold times, tap times, and working fare and vending machines.

At the CTA’s request, a leading national call center company is helping Cubic institute quick improvements and upgrade its call center responses, Claypool said. Until operators reach “the quality we expect of a top notch call center, we’re not going to move ahead” with a systemwide Ventra payment system, he said.

RTA chairman John Gates Jr. last month called Ventra a “systemic failure” but was more upbeat Wednesday. Said Gates: “This is tremendous progress from a very rocky start.” However, the CTA’s PowerPoint presentation to Gates and the RTA omitted the 60 percent of the bus fleet that has yet to receive software upgrades, and left out one of the three performance benchmarks — what percent of Ventra readers and vending machines are working.

Meanwhile, the CTA released its second weekly Ventra performance update to reporters that indicated 99.4 percent of readers at train station turnstiles have been working, and 98.3 percent of train station vending machines are operational. But no data on how many bus fare readers are working was released.

Other findings:

More than 66 percent of CTA rides are paid via Ventra.

Average rail reader “tap times” for Ventra cards were 0.6 seconds, “showing significant improvement following software upgrades that have been made in recent weeks.”

Average bus tap times were 1.1 seconds, but that only includes buses with reader upgrades.

Call center performance has improved, with average call wait times below 5 minutes. Between Nov. 9 and Nov. 30, the average daily wait time ranged from 46 seconds on Nov. 26 to 6:36 minutes on Nov. 15.

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