CHICAGO — The Chicago Transit Authority took pains Wednesday to emphasize it's in the transportation business, not the banking industry.
The Tribune reported Wednesday that the new Ventra card is "rife with fees," including a $10-an-hour research fee to explore consumer complaints about mischarges.
But CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase emphasized those fees are comparable to others in the credit-card industry and only kick in if a customer chooses to activate a Ventra card as a prepaid debit card.
"You have to take the steps to initiate that," Chase said. "This is being offered as a service to customers if they want it."
The Ventra card, which will phase out the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus later in the year, comes with a MasterCard logo, but it will basically operate in much the same way as the current CTA cards. Customers can reload it at Ventra machines at CTA stations without incurring any additional fees — in their account or at the turnstiles.
"We're not getting into the banking business," Chase said. "We're in the transit business."
Yet, if a customer does choose to register the card as a prepaid debit card, it will be subject to the usual myriad fees such cards come with in the industry. On that note, Chase emphasized, it's still early in the process.
"It's March!" she said. "We're not hiding anything here. Customers will know what they're getting into.
"We'll be doing extensive outreach and education," Chase pledged, as Ventra cards are phased in over the summer. "We're just getting warmed up."
But the seats at the CTA have been already been plenty hot where Ventra is concerned.
CTA spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis said the company had been "miscategorized" as a small business, so that the almost 100 complaints lodged over three years set off alarms. "The rating was skewed," Lukidis said. "That has all been resolved," including all those complaints, she added, and Money Network now gets a B-plus from the BBB.
Chase acknowledged the fees, when they do kick in, "get pretty much divvied up" between CTA and the card companies administering Ventra.
Both Chase and Lukidis, however, stressed that riders can also use their own debit cards without a Ventra card — if they're equipped with a contactless microchip, usually depicted as an antenna-wave symbol on the front of the card. They can use those cards either to register with Ventra for set deductions — by day, month or designated amount — or simply tap and go at the turnstile and see the $2.25 fare deducted from their account.
Last month, the CTA revealed that the change to Ventra would mean rail riders would be charged $3 for a single ride if they pay with cash at a station without a Ventra or debit card. That included a 50-cent "limited-use fee," mainly for the cost of the computer chip embedded in a paper ticket, as well as a mandatory 25-cent transfer, whether to be used or not, on top of the basic $2.25 fare. The CTA Board signed off on that last week.
The Ventra system has resulted in a number of unexpected consumer-affairs inquiries, Chase allowed, but added, "Our core mission is transit."