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CTA reveals debit fees of new Ventra card system as state lawmakers lob questions

A Ventrvending machine State Grsubway station.  |   JessicKoscielniak~ Sun-Times file photo

A Ventra vending machine at the State and Grand subway station. | Jessica Koscielniak~ Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: May 3, 2013 6:18AM

CTA officials revealed Monday that they have finally posted the fees — 13 to be exact — associated with the debit side of their new Ventra payment system just as one key lawmaker said she hopes the agency will dump the debit feature.

State Rep. Deborah Mell (D-Chicago), chairwoman of the House Mass Transit Committee, said despite CTA President Forrest Claypool’s contention that the debit side of the upcoming “two-in-one” Ventra card is optional, she was concerned “people out there may not make educated choices.”

“I kind of hope he’d just get rid of the debit feature,’’ Mell told reporters after chairing a hearing on the CTA Ventra payment system set to debut this summer.

The “contactless” Ventra card can be preloaded with transit funds but will also feature a voluntary debit option for purchasing goods.

“It’s interesting that most of the questions are on the debit [portion of the] card when we are in the transit business,’’ Mell said.

Lawmakers Monday pummeled Claypool with questions about the new Ventra payment system, indicating they feared it could soak the poor, tourists and not-for-profits. Concern was not only raised about the 33 percent increase in a single-ride rail ticket purchased with cash but also with the debit feature.

Claypool testified the debit option was purely voluntary and noted that it could be used as a depository for paychecks more cheaply than the 2.25 percent rate charged by currency exchanges.

However, some lawmakers fretted the CTA might so heavily market the debit feature that some users who didn’t read the fine print could wind up with excessive debit fees.

The debit feature is “not something [constituents] would have asked for,’’ state Rep. Al Riley (D-Olympia Fields) said later. “We want to help with the Ventra card but this other thing could be a problem.’’

Fees listed Monday on the new website included $15 for the expedited delivery of a lost or stolen card; $6 to cash out a debit account in the form of a “balance refund check,’’ and up to $4.95 to “load cash at participating reload agent locations.’’

Claypool conceded “the marketplace rules,” and said there could always be “opportunities’’ for debit fees controlled by banks and retail outlets to increase. However, he insisted Ventra’s current debit fees were smaller than most.

He labeled as “wild speculation” the comments of one expert quoted as estimating the average Ventra debit user would incur $188 in fees a year. That estimate was based on enough $2 phone calls to a live Ventra operator to have a “romantic relationship,’’ Claypool quipped.

However, State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25th), House Majority leader, held Claypool’s feet to the fire, asking “can I see the paperwork” proving the fees are relatively low.

Some lawmakers Monday clearly weren’t fully satisfied with the CTA’s answers. Afterward, Mell said the Ventra rollout thus far, from a public relations standpoint, “is not going well.” Riley said he thought Claypool skirted “a lot of issues today.’’

“He kept saying, ‘I’m not the expert.’ Then the expert should have been here,’’ Riley said. “There’s never an excuse for skirting” questions.

Later Monday, Kwiyoung Baumgarten, a spokeswoman for Ventra subcontractor FirstData, told the Sun-Times that the debit feature can only be loaded with cash at retail outlets, and FirstData has “no control” over fees charged by retailers for cash reloads.

However, she said, for any banking fees associated with the debit function, “You can expect the fees to remain the same through the contract with the caveat that industry regulation could change the landscape in the future; and [we] will do our best to influence on behalf of the cardholders.”

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