RIVER NORTH — The Chicago Transit Authority is extending the changeover period to the new Ventra fare system, with an open-ended deadline for completion, while demanding better customer service from its corporate owner.
"The bottom line is too many of our customers are confused and frustrated, and that's our fault," CTA President Forrest Claypool said in a lunch speech to the City Club of Chicago Tuesday. "That's especially true of our Chicago Card customers."
Yet Claypool insisted the Ventra system works, with 25 million "taps" for rides in the first seven weeks, and with more than half of all CTA riders having made the transition. He said the problems with the system were largely in communications, especially in the customer service provided by Ventra manager Cubic Transportation Systems.
"The biggest self-inflicted wound here was the low-tech issue, the call system," Claypool said.
Claypool said, at the worst, Ventra fielded 20,000 complaint calls in a day, with waits of 45 minutes or more. He added that he had insisted the firm triple its hirings to handle complaints, and said the wait time was five minutes as of this week.
Cutting the wait time on calls to five minutes was one of three conditions he set for Cubic. It must also guarantee that boxes reading the wireless cards function 99 percent of the time, and that they read and register each transaction within 2 1/2 seconds.
"Once Cubic reaches these goals, we will announce a new timetable," Claypool said. For now, however, CTA systems will accept both Ventra and the old Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus, as well as magnetic-stripe cards. The deadline to complete the transition is "a date to be determined," he added.
Richard Wunderle, Cubic's senior vice president and general manager of North American operations, joined Claypool and cited the company's experience in transit systems in New York City and Washington, D.C., as well as with the Chicago Card. Ventra "will not fail in Chicago," he said. "The system will work, and we'll all be proud of it."
Wunderle went on, however, to issue a formal apology. "It wasn't our best effort," he said. "But we'll get better." He later would not estimate a time frame for completing the three requirements demanded by Claypool, except to say, "I think we're near all those metrics."
Claypool and Wunderle attributed many of the early problems to riders tapping and retapping cards on readers when they didn't immediately respond. Cubic has added a page to the reader saying, "Processing," to let riders know the card is being processed within 2 1/2 seconds. They advised patience.
Wunderle also explained that Chicago Card users accustomed to the convenience of keeping their cards in a wallet or purse will have to remove them from other cards or risk the fare being charged to another card. The readers will only register one fare, he said, but that will be charged to the first card they read, not necessarily the Ventra card if it's stacked with other wireless credit cards.
Wunderle also said there is no way, at the moment, for riders to get their card balance at the turnstile or in boarding a bus. The system of registering the fare on an account is too complicated, he said, to allow that convenience in 2 1/2 seconds.
"That's pretty damn fast if you ask me," Wunderle said.
Riders can check the balance at a Ventra vending machine or a merchant.
Cubic won a 12-year, $454 million contract to execute the Ventra system, the first of its kind handling wireless debit and credit cards. It has spent $92 million implementing the system, according to Claypool, and will not be paid until it meets those three conditions he imposed.
"We haven't paid them one penny," said CTA spokesman Brian Steele.
Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) called for hearings on the entire shift to Ventra.
"We know we have a problem," Fioretti said Tuesday at City Hall. "Let's see what we need to do to fix it. This rollout's been close to a disaster and a debacle."
The CTA and the Mayor's Office insist Ventra has "performed well overall," but they acknowledge "a number of customer-service issues and technical glitches."
Ventra cards have been delayed or lost in the mail and have had accounting issues and turnstile troubles. Claypool acknowledged that CTA station workers and bus drivers had been "waving people in free" when they had problems with Ventra, and said the agency might seek compensation from Cubic, adding, "It's an issue we will look at."
Claypool laid most of the flaws at the feet of Cubic Tuesday, but he acknowledged the CTA had not handled the transition smoothly for Chicago Card users.
"We failed in that execution," Steele said, adding that both the CTA and Cubic had committed errors in replacing those cards with Ventra cards and easing the transfer of account balances.
Claypool said all Chicago Card customers and seniors and others receiving reduced-fare rides would receive their Ventra cards by the end of the month, with the final ones scheduled to be sent out Nov. 23.
Fioretti said he's been subjected to 45-minute waits in calling the Ventra customer service line.
"It's frustrating," he said.
Fioretti added that Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council Transportation Committee, wants to hold hearings "quickly and not drag this out."
Hearings, Fioretti said, also will delve into how Cubic was awarded the contract and what the CTA has gained.
"There's a lot of questions regarding this deal," Fioretti said. "Who's bearing the costs? Who's getting the interest rates off this?"
The CTA initially claimed it would save money and add customer convenience in the shift to what's termed an "open standards" fare system, which allows riders to use their own pay-by-touch credit or debit cards or a system card.
Yet with the new card came a controversial fee structure if a rider activates the Ventra card's debit option, and the CTA had to work to rein in those fees.
The shift originally was dictated by the state so that all Regional Transportation Authority riders could use the same card, but the CTA and the suburban Pace transit system went ahead with Ventra on their own, while Metra was slow to formally adopt it.
Fioretti also said he wants to touch on the "hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, floating out there" in magnetic-stripe cards and Chicago Cards that may have unused funds on them when they're eventually deactivated.