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Frustrated aldermen: Is it time to dump Ventra contractor?

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd)  |  Sun-Times file photo

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: December 16, 2013 6:38AM

Chicago aldermen voiced frustration Thursday over this week’s rush-hour Ventra meltdown, with some contending it’s time to think about dumping the Chicago Transit Authority’s Ventra vendor.

“They have to justify why they are going to keep this system. Otherwise, it has to go,’’ said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), one of eight members of the Council’s Progressive Caucus who have called for a Transportation Committee hearing on Ventra.

“We’re getting awfully close, with these kind of errors and problems with the system, that we ought to let them go,’’ Fioretti said.

The CTA admits that an estimated 15,000 riders were waved through gates for free, starting about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, after a “back-office server failure’’ caused Ventra card payment readers to malfunction for 15 to 90 minutes at 60 rail stations. The Ventra vendor — Cubic Transportation Systems — installed a “software patch” to fix the problem. No readers have malfunctioned since that fix was made at 6 p.m. Wednesday, a CTA spokesman said Thursday.

During the height of Wednesday’s evening rush hour, the glitch forced the CTA to allow hordes of riders to stream through gates for free. The CTA has said it will seek recovery of the lost fares from Cubic.

“Waving hundreds of people through isn’t a solution that can be sustainable,” Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chair of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said Thursday.

Brookins said it might be time to look for other vendors. “They don’t seem to be able to get this technology right,’’ he said of Cubic.

Brookins questioned why lawmakers required the CTA, Metra and Pace to move to a “regional fare payment system” that must allow customers to use “contactless”credit cards, debit cards and preloaded fare cards by Jan. 1, 2015. Ventra’s “contactless chip” has triggered complaints that customers’ credit cards are being charged by mistake. And bus drivers who get too close to Ventra readers are being charged on their own credit cards just to do their job.

“This just shows what can happen when you try to be on the cutting edge of technology,’’ Brookins said. “ If there’s a mandate by the state Legislature with a hard timeline on it, that timeline needs to be pushed back because it doesn’t seem like this company is able to get it fixed.’’

CTA spokesman Brian Steele said the chip used in the CTA’s Chicago Card is no longer being produced and its manufacturer — Fujitsu — even closed its chip-production factory.

“Instead of replacing nearly 20-year-old equipment and technology, the CTA board instead chose a modern technology,’’ Steele said.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) questioned why CTA President Forrest Claypool didn’t set firm deadlines when he announced last week that he would not pay Cubic a dime until it met three performance benchmarks, including that 99 percent of Ventra readers work properly and that 99 percent of reader taps register a payment within 2.5 seconds.

Waguespack also urged the CTA to investigate what’s needed to get out of the Cubic contract,

“We have to look at them and see what the justification is for breaking the contract,’’ Waguespack said.

On Thursday, Steele could not say under what circumstances the CTA could fire Cubic, but he did note that “dozens of performance standards” in the Cubic contract kick in once Ventra “is fully implemented.’’

At this point, he said, “Ventra is in the middle of a four-month rollout.

But he said Cubic is close to meeting the three new benchmarks set last week, so the CTA “didn’t feel the need to set a specific calendar date” for the company to hit each benchmark.


Twitter: @rosalindrossi

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