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Tap That Pass: Debit Card Fare System Coming to CTA And Pace (But Not Metra)

By Kim Bellware in News on Sep 28, 2012 7:40PM

The magnetic strip fare card will soon be going the way of the subway token for CTA and Pace riders. The CTA announced yesterday plans to roll out Ventra, a new touch card payment system that will include debit and credit card "tap" payments on CTA and Pace.

“Chicago will become the first major U.S. city to adopt an open fare system for transit,” said Forrest Claypool, CTA President, in the official press release. “The CTA is committed to investing in systems and technology that make taking public transportation easier and more convenient for our customers as CTA ridership continues to grow.”

On the Ventra system, contactless payments can be made — much like the current system with the magnetic strip — with a vending machine fare card (single ride or 1-day pass), a prepaid debit-like Ventra card (replacing the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus) or a bank-issued credit or debit card containing the contactless chip. Buses will still accept cash payments.

Touted as a cost and time-saving measure, the CTA/Pace integration is a natural integration that hopefully puts Chicago one step closer to fully integrated parking and transit payment systems that are on par with London's Oyster Card or Hong Kong's Octopus Card. A glaring omission from the plan, however, is any integration with Metra rail service.

According to the Tribune, Metra had the opportunity to opt in, but the rail company essentially took their toys and left the sandbox with a "no thanks":

Metra was offered the opportunity to participate in the Ventra program during meetings with the CTA, but the commuter railroad declined, Steele said. The CTA awarded a $454 million contract to Cubic Transportation Systems in November 2011 to create the open fare system. Pace joined the contract in July.

"We want to make sure whatever system we adopt works best for Metra and works with"
CTA and Pace, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.

Metra can hold out — for now — but by 2015, the RTA will hit its deadline to get a fully-integrated fare system in action.

Though monthly CTA ridership dwarfs Metra and Pace — CTA had 44,375, 471 rides in the month of July, versus 1,610,700 and 2,403,538 for Metra and Pace respectively — integration with CTA and the regional rail service is one consumers have long hoped for.

Starting next month, vending machines for the system will be installed in CTA rail stations, though the pilot won't begin until spring of 2013, with the official launch slated for next summer. Price structure will stay the same (until the biennial doomsday scenario), with discounted rates for 7 and 30-day passes. Mobile paying, though a way off, is part of the overall plan, and by 2014, all Chicago Card, Chicago Card Plus and Pace cards will be replaced with Ventra. These cardholders will also be among the first invited to the program.

Installation of the vending machines, transponders and other tools facilitating Ventra will be handled by Cubic Transportation Systems, while the bank-issued credit and debit cards will be provided by MetaBank. The latter, according to WBEZ, has an eyebrow-raising mark on its record: a multi-million dollar settlement as a result of The Office of Thrift Supervision bringing the hammer down on MetaBank for "deceptive" practices.

Here's a Q&A courtesy of the CTA-owned Ventra site, with a timeline of the rollout.