The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Chicagoist's Top Stories Of 2013: Ventra Blows A Noxious Wind

By Chuck Sudo in News on Dec 30, 2013 8:00PM

Photo credit: Deborah McCoy/Facebook

Of all the pages of newsprint and terrabytes of server space written about Ventra and its attendant problems since its September launch, one thing stands out like a pimple on a beauty queen's face: why the rush, Chicago Transit Authority? Why was there such an impulse to establish an expedited timetable to switch from a fare payment system that was imperfect yet mostly functional to one that was confounding, barely piloted before it was launched on riders and had more holes than a brick of Swiss cheese? (I ask this as public transit rider who has had few complaints about his Ventra card.)

We love the idea of a shared fare payment system that allows us to use one card to transfer between CTA, Pace suburban bus and Metra rail. But to work out the kinks in the program during its launch is near-criminal. Even Metra—a public transit agency that has perfected self-sabotage—is slowly transitioning to Ventra before the 2015 deadline for the three Chicago public transit agencies to switch to a common fare payment system takes effect. The comedy of errors that plagued Ventra would be expected (and to be honest, still are) in Metra's hands. But they happened with CTA which is otherwise reasonably competent, by comparison.

And yet the Emanuel administration and CTA still seem hellbent on getting the transition to Ventra back online, if their frequent updates of the performance metrics they regularly send to media since late November are any indication. Emanuel said he's confident CTA president Forrest Claypool, the Charlie Brown of Cook County politics, is walking the walk and holding Cubic Transportation Systems responsible. Claypool says Cubic is improving their customer service with Ventra and, more important, CTA is holding them accountable.

Photo credit: aaroncynic/Chicagoist

But who's holding CTA accountable for its role in the disastrous rollout? Why is CTA getting into the business of offering an open fare system that can also double as a debit card and the hidden fees therein? With a company carrying a poor consumer rating? Why schedule only one public hearing on the program's launch?

Even someone not knowledgeable on Ventra would have looked at the overcharges, the double charges, the initial inability to load fares on to cards, the 15,000 free rides issued to riders on a November night and the interminable waits to speak to a customer service representative that would try the patience of a monk and determined this was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rather than rush into this, why doesn't CTA and Pace take Metra's lead and slowly transition to Ventra? Cubic is going to make money off of this regardless, so let's remove the hitches in the system. Ensure that servers are secure and backed up. Fix the glitches that allow federal employees to ride trains for free and charge other contactless credit cards of riders who forget to remove their Ventra card to tap the reader. Improve the customer service line and stop firing workers for doing their jobs.

Paying some attention to detail would have saved CTA a ton of grief and, heading into the new year, will go a long way to restoring riders' confidence the agency will finally get Ventra right and consign the hashtag #VentraFails to the dustbin of Chicago history.