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Senior transit users to escape Ventra ‘purchase’ fee but still face $5 ‘dormancy’ charge

The new venturvending machine has been installed State Grsubway statiMarch 20 2013. | JessicKoscielniak ~ Sun-Times

The new ventura vending machine has been installed at the State and Grand subway station March 20, 2013. | Jessica Koscielniak ~ Sun-Times

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Updated: March 20, 2013 7:18PM

When the CTA launches its new Ventra payment system, it won’t charge seniors a one-time transit card “purchase” fee, but it will dock them $5 a month if they let their cards sit idle for more than 18 months, RTA officials revealed Wednesday.

The RTA said it has been swamped with questions about Ventra from some of the 500,000 seniors, disabled and low-income transit riders who now receive special RTA “permits’’ entitling them to reduced or free fares on city and suburban public transit.“They are confused,’’ said RTA spokeswoman Diane Palmer. “Seniors and the disabled need clarification.’’

The Ventra payment card system — which allows a rider to pay fares by tapping a pre-loaded plastic card with a special chip on a fare reader — is set to debut this summer.

A few weeks later, seniors and others who currently have reduced-fare permits should be receiving new plastic Ventra payment cards in the mail, with photos the RTA now has on file for them on those cards.

Unlike other transit users, they will not be assessed a one-time $5 Ventra card “purchase” fee, but must they must load the plastic card with cash or credit to use it on a bus or at a transit station. The CTA will accept current paper magnetic stripe cards through the end of the year.

However, if a senior becomes incapacitated and unable to use public transit for more than 15 months, a $5 “dormancy’’ fee will be docked monthly from the transit credit on their senior Ventra permit.

J. Joseph Smith, 62, who lives in an assisted living facility in Des Plaines, called the $5 a month senior dormancy fee “ridiculous” and said it would be financially onerous to some seniors.

The entire Ventra system, Smith said, is “unnecessarily complicated and therefore it’s going to be a problem for seniors.”

The RTA’s Planning Department, in an analysis of Ventra, raised concerns about charging the “dormancy’’ fee to seniors and others “who stop riding the system due to health or relocation” for more than 18 months.

But at this point, RTA officials said, CTA still wants to charge seniors the dormancy fee. As a result, they said, they are planning mailings to seniors and “constant outreach events’’ to alert seniors that they need to inform the RTA if they change their address or stop using their transit permits in the future.

The RTA also revealed it will cost the agency about $2 million more a year to produce a reduced-fare version of the new Ventra card, an amount already reflected in this year’s RTA budget.

Yet more previously undisclosed Ventra fees emerged Wednesday in correspondence between the RTA and CTA indicating the CTA wants to charge the RTA $1.50 per month for each of 50,000 customers whose transit fares are subtracted from their pay pre-tax in a benefit administered by the RTA.

In a Tuesday letter to CTA President Forrest Claypool, RTA executive director Joe Costello contended that the $1.50 charge — which could cost the RTA some $900,000 a year — should be waived for any agency that processes pre-tax transit benefits. Instead, such agencies should be viewed as “partners” in the “ultimate goal” of getting more people to ride transit, Costello contended.

CTA officials argued the RTA could have used Ventra contractor Cubic Transportation at no cost to administer pre-tax transit benefits. RTA officials insisted Cubic could not cover a large enough service area to meet its customer needs — but the CTA insisted that’s not true.

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