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CTA rolls back some controversial Ventra fees

Updated: June 25, 2013 6:42AM



CTA Ventra payment card holders who use the card’s controversial debit features won’t be charged for talking to public transit customer service operators or using the cards for cash ATM withdrawals under new fee rollbacks revealed Thursday.

The new concessions soften some of the more onerous fees associated with the pre-paid debit features of a new fare payment system the CTA plans to debut later this year.

CTA Ventra cards will be “contactless,’’ meaning riders merely need to load them with transit credits and tap them on fare readers to gain access to CTA L stations as well as city and PACE buses. But far more controversial has been the CTA’s decision to add an optional prepaid “debit’’ feature to the cards that allows users to purchase goods with it. Even some Illinois lawmakers have questioned the debit option.

One of the biggest pluses for consumers sealed Thursday is that if they preload credit on to the debit portion of the card, they can withdraw cash against that credit for free at some 1,000 Allpoint ATM machines in the Chicago area – and 43,000 nationwide.

Previously, the CTA had said a $1.50 fee would be charged for each such ATM withdrawal.

Plus, the CTA is trying to negotiate free ATM withdrawals with about five other companies that operate ATM machines in CTA stations, officials said.

Another giveback is that Ventra debit card users will no longer be charged $2 to speak to live operators by phone.

David Marzahl, president of Chicago’s Center for Economic Progress, said he viewed the free calls to operators as critical, given the complexities of the new system.

“Anytime you have something new, there will be calls,’’ Marzahl said. The Ventra debit feature “is not a bank, it doesn’t have tellers. I think the customer service piece is going to be hugely important.’’

Working with subcontractor FirstData, CTA also won a reduction to $5 from $6 in the fee to close out a Ventra user’s debit balance in one check payment. Also negotiated downward, to $1 from $2, was the fee for monthly paper statements.

Still a concern, Marzahl said, is the fee of up to $4.95 that CTA retail outlets will be allowed to charge Ventra card holders to load cash on the debit sides of their cards.

That fee could be steep for low-income riders who may not have employers who can direct-deposit funds onto their Ventra debit cards, said Marzahl, one of several consumer advocacy representatives who have been meeting with the CTA to tweak debit fees.

“That is one of the features we are still looking to work with them on,’’ Marzahl said. “If you don’t have direct deposit, if you have to do a cash load, we think that can be improved….One of the only sticking points remaining is that particular feature.’’

CTA spokesman Brian Steele said cash-load fees are decided by retail outlets, not the CTA, so he was not sure if such fees could be changed.

Steele said the CTA reached out to consumer advocacy groups after catching heat from consumers and others about the debit fees, and what emerged was an “even more attractive’’ debit option.

“It was a great product to start out with and now it’s even better,’’ Steele said.



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