CHICAGO — Transit chiefs defended the new Ventra payment system in the face of sometimes harsh criticism from state legislators at a downtown hearing Monday.
Chicago Transit Authority President Forrest Claypool emphasized that the new Ventra card's debit option is "completely voluntary" and that, if used solely as a transit card, it will cost riders no additional money. Claypool said Ventra's debit option was intended to "liberate" those without bank accounts from higher fees charged by currency exchanges.
Yet state Rep. Al Riley (D-Olympia Fields) called that "disingenuous." Riley said he was "trying to protect the consumer" from predatory fees incurred when Ventra's debit option is activated.
Claypool lashed out at a report in the Tribune stating that the debit option would cost card users an average of $188 a year in fees.
"That report is false," Claypool said, adding that estimate is based on a "wildly speculative hypothetical" and "is simply not accurate."
State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie suggested Claypool prove it, saying, "If you have some paperwork, we'd like to look at it."
Claypool said Ventra was "more modern and efficient" than current cards and would save the CTA $5 million annually.
"This is a significant technology upgrade," added T.J. Ross, executive director of Pace, the suburban bus system in the Regional Transportation Authority. "Ventra is a doorway into the future, into the 21st century."
Yet RTA Chief of Staff Jordan Matyas raised eyebrows when he said Ventra cards issued for reduced-fare rides to seniors and low-income individuals would not have the debit option. He called it "a decision by the RTA that this was not the best option for them."
Metra Executive Director Alex Clifford, speaking for the RTA's suburban rail system, came under fire as well for saying his agency was still "exploring" Ventra, adding, "We'd like to hear all the options and then evaluate the pros and cons."
"It doesn't cut it," Riley said. "We'd like to see Metra participate in the process."
The CTA adopted Ventra, in part, to address a General Assembly requirement that all RTA agencies use the same payment system by the start of 2015. Clifford said that, while the CTA would continue to take cash on buses, Metra was hoping to "stop taking cash on the train" and that it was looking into smartphone payment methods.
"I am really interested with how this is all going to turn out," said state Rep. Deborah Mell (D-Chicago), the chairman of the House Mass Transit Committee.
The committee met at the Bilandic Building downtown.
Ventra will be phased in over the summer by the CTA, with a complete conversion set for next year.