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Metra to offer mobile ticketing by Jan. 1; riders could pay with Ventra

A Metrtrarolls by. | Sun-Times MediFile

A Metra train rolls by. | Sun-Times Media File

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Updated: July 22, 2014 6:12AM



Metra is preparing to offer mobile ticketing by Jan. 1, as well as to allow some riders to buy tickets at stations with the tap of new Ventra cards or any contactless credit card, officials said Friday.

The new mobile ticketing system will allow riders to buy tickets on their smart phones using a credit, debit or Ventra card; they’d show conductors their tickets merely by holding up their phones, said Metra’s Ventra point person Lynnette Ciavarella.

The new phone app will be tested in a pilot program this fall, Ciavarella said. By Jan. 1, it should accept either the “transit” or the optional “retail” side of Ventra cards to pay for rides.

All Ventra cards function as basic transit cards. But they also have a retail function that riders can activate if they choose. That retail function, however, works like a traditional debit card, meaning there are additional fees involved that can eat away at your balance.

For customers who buy tickets from station agents with credit card readers, only the retail portion of the Ventra card will work by Jan. 1. Eventually, Metra hopes its machines also will accept the transit side of Ventra cards.

Metra expects to spend $2 million to swap out its current credit card readers for ones that will also allow riders tap certain contactless cards for payment.

The suburban commuter rail agency has been slow to jump on the Ventra bandwagon but is now working with the CTA and Ventra’s vendor to incorporate Ventra into its payment system.

The CTA and Pace will complete a nearly year-long switch to a Ventra-only system on July 1.

Metra is required by Jan. 1 to join a “regional payment system” that accepts contactless credit cards, debit cards and prepaid cards.

Also Tuesday, Metra staff said the agency’s on-time performance rate dropped in May, to 94.5 percent. The rate had been on the way up in April following a brutal winter.

The worst performance was racked up by BNSF, which saw 61 freight-train delays and 166 construction delays in May, said Metra operations chief Pete Zwolfer.

A major BNSF railroad tie project caused May construction delays, but Metra was blindsided by BNSF’s decision to do a June 9-13 audit that prompted even more delays that month, Metra officials said.

BNSF executive Dan Rankin conceded Friday the company should have alerted Metra that BNSF would have to suffer a second month of delays, especially because some work limited trains to 25 mph or less on some sections of track.

Also Friday, Metra board members bid adieu to two colleagues whose terms are expiring — Arlene Mulder, board secretary, and Jack Schaffer, board treasurer.

A replacement has not yet been chosen for Mulder’s Cook Count seat. Former McHenry County Board member Marc Munaretto, who has been attending Metra meetings since November, has been tapped to fill Schaffer’s McHenry County seat.

Both Mulder and Schaffer served Metra during two CEO controversies: the May 2010 suicide of then-CEO Phil Pagano as the board was preparing to fire him for financial irregularities; and the June 2013 board decision to award then-CEO Alex Clifford a controversial $871,000 severance package.

Schaffer was the only board member to vote against the Clifford buyout, and did so emphatically, saying “Hell no” at the time. He later told a legislative committee the deal with Clifford amounted to mostly “hush money.’’ Clifford had threatened to file a whistleblower suit against the board, contending two members wanted to oust him for not “playing ball” on patronage and contracts.

Furor over the severance package triggered a series of board resignations but a new appointee since then — Board President Marty Oberman of Chicago — said it would have been “impossible” to manage as a board if Schaffer and Mulder had not ignored cries for an even bigger turnover and stayed on through “the turmoil.’’

All five Clifford-era board members, including Mulder and Schaffer, have made “valuable “ contributions to the 11-member board, Oberman said.

Also Friday, Board members approved 13 pages of criteria by which they will evaluate CEO Don Orseno. They were criticized for not having such a criteria in place at the time of Clifford’s departure.

Email: rrossi@suntimes.com

Twitter: @rosalindrossi



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