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RTA chief orders Ventra audit

John S. Gates Jr.

John S. Gates Jr.

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Updated: December 23, 2013 2:15PM

The chairman of the RTA on Wednesday ordered the agency’s auditor to investigate what he called the “systemic failure” of the CTA’s new Ventra fare payment system.

RTA Chairman John Gates Jr. said he wanted a “rapid and independent” analysis of “what’s working and what’s not” with Ventra, which has been riddled with problems since its September rollout.

“Obviously we’ve had unacceptable and systemic failure there,’’ Gates said at a monthly Regional Transportation Authority board meeting.

Gates said he wants to know whether Ventra foul-ups had cost the CTA lost revenue or will have an effect on its budget.

“Obviously this has morphed into much more than a computer glitch,’’ he said.

Last week, an estimated 15,000 L riders were given free rides after Ventra readers malfunctioned at 60 CTA rail stations at the height of the evening rush hour. CTA blamed the problem on a “server failure.” TV and video reports showed CTA workers holding station gates open as hordes of passengers streamed through for free on Nov. 13.

CTA officials said Wednesday that field personnel “monitoring activity at each rail station” provided the count of 15,000. But a week after the fare reader meltdown, the CTA has yet to figure out how much in lost fares to seek from its Ventra vendor — Cubic Transportation Systems, CTA officials said.

CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase called Gates’ “systemic failure” comments “surprising” given the “vast amount of information” the CTA has given the RTA about Ventra.

The CTA will “share any proper financial information” with the RTA and continue to update it on “the significant progress already made to address Ventra issues,’’ Chase said by email Wednesday.

Earlier this month, CTA President Forrest Claypool suspended all Ventra transition deadlines until Cubic meets three performance targets. Until then, magnetic-stripe cards will continue to be sold at CTA stations, and Chicago Cards and Chicago Card Plus cards will be accepted.

Magnetic-stripe vending machines had been scheduled to be deactivated and removed on Nov. 15.

Claypool on Tuesday promised weekly updates on Cubic’s progress, starting Friday. Claypool’s comments came at a news conference at which Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he was “frustrated” that Cubic had not met expectations but supported Claypool’s decision not to pay Cubic a dime until its performance improves.

Complaints about Ventra include excessive call center hold times, double billing and Ventra fare readers that don’t seem to register payments — or take excessively long to do so.

Responding to a final RTA audit on another matter Wednesday, Gates asked staff to analyze whether any costs associated with the controversial $871,000 buyout of former Metra CEO Alex Clifford are recoverable.

Metra does not think it can win back any costs associated with the Clifford settlement through its insurance policy, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said Wednesday. Added Gillis: “We are exploring other options.’’

The RTA analysis will include whether a lawsuit could be filed over fees charged by JG Law, which guided the Metra board through settlement discussions with Clifford, and Culloton Strategies, a crisis-strategy firm hired by then-Metra Board Chairman Brad O’Halloran, RTA officials said.

A final RTA audit released Wednesday by RTA auditor Michael Zumach indicated that, before reaching a settlement with Clifford, the Metra board should have been told — but wasn’t — that a $10 million insurance policy would have covered all but $150,000 if Clifford had sued for wrongful termination or retaliation.

The final audit noted that in other legal settlements, the Metra Board has been provided with a detailed analysis, various settlement options and counsel’s recommendation. In the Clifford case, the audit said, “the Board was presented with the one option, and very little analysis or documentation upon which to make a decision, other than the verbal recommendation from the outside Employment Counsel that the settlement amount was less than the cost of litigation.’’

During public hearings about his severance deal, Clifford charged that two board members wanted to replace him because he would not play ball on patronage and contract requests on behalf of powerful politicans. The charges kicked open a series of investigations, and Zumach on Wednesday identified the agencies that still may be investigating as the Office of Ethics of the U.S. House, the state executive inspector general and the state legislative inspector general.


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