Vetra fare system

A CTA rider inserts his transit card above the new Ventra fare system device on a turnstile at the Western Blue Line station. (John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune / March 29, 2013)

The CTA will waive a $5 fee for customers who obtain the new Ventra transit card in 2013 and it also will eliminate or reduce some of the controversial service charges related to the optional Ventra debit MasterCard account, officials said Friday.

The changes, made in the face of strong criticism about the myriad prepaid debit account fees from elected officials, consumer groups and CTA riders, will come at a price for the CTA.

Under the renegotiated deal reached between the transit agency and its Ventra partners, the CTA gave up a guaranteed half-million dollar annual minimum share of some prepaid debit fees that will be collected. The actual revenue generated for the CTA from the ancillary fees was projected to be much higher than $500,000, officials had said.

“We reduced the amount to zero,’’ said CTA spokesman Brian Steele. But the CTA will still receive revenue from Ventra-related advertising and from the transit benefits program that provides a tax savings to participating transit users, he said.

The better consumer news for CTA and Pace customers who accept the offer of a Ventra fare-payment card coupled with the optional MasterCard is that a $1.50 ATM withdrawal fee on the debit account is being eliminated – if the withdrawals are made from ATMs in the Allpoint network, officials said.

Allpoint operates about 1,000 ATM machines in the Chicago area and about 43,000 nationally.

ATM fees will still be charged if the Ventra prepaid MasterCard is used for transactions at ATMs outside the Allpoint network, although the CTA and its Ventra partners are attempting to negotiate fee-waivers from banks and other ATM providers, Steele said.

A $5 fee will still be charged if withdrawals using the Ventra MasterCard are made at a teller window in a bank, officials said.

Under the new changes, Ventra debit card customers won’t face a previously proposed $2 charge to talk on the phone with a Ventra customer assistant, Steele said.

In addition, the fee to obtain a paper monthly statement will be reduced to $1, from $2, officials said. And customers who decide to quit the Ventra program will be charged a $5 balance refund fee, down from $6, officials said.

In another about-face, the CTA will waive the $5 fee to acquire a Ventra card this year. Free cards will be distributed during an outreach campaign expected to begin next month, Steele said. The cards will be handed out at neighborhood festivals and other community events, he said.

The $5 fee to obtain a Ventra card will be charged in 2014, Steele said. The $5 will be applied toward future transit service if the card owner registers the card, officials said.
 
Ventra customers who lose their cards will be required to pay $5 for a replacement card.
 
The Ventra fare-collection system is slated to be rolled out late this summer, Steele said. Ventra is a contactless card that will replace the popular Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus next year. The Chicago Card computer chip technology is becoming outdated, officials said.

Riders will also have the option to pay transit fares using a personal credit card, if it is equipped with the contactless radio-wave technology. Using a personal credit card will be the easiest way to avoid fees.

But a host of other “convenience fees’’ and customer service charges will remain on the debit card account, and those charges could quickly add up if card holders are not careful, consumer advocates caution.

The charges include a $5 per month “dormancy fee’’ if the Ventra transit card is not used on buses or trains for 18 months; and a $2 per month “inactivity fee’’ for non-use of the optional debit account in an 18-month period.

Fees of up to $4.95 will be charged by retail outlets to load cash onto the debit account. Another fee – $2.95 to add money to the debit account using a personal credit card – was eliminated earlier, CTA officials said in March. Also removed earlier was a $10 an hour fee for “account research’’ to resolve account discrepancies, officials said.

Meanwhile, CTA customers who pay cash fares will be charged $3 for a single-ride rail ticket. It’s a 33 percent fare increase over the current $2.25 rail fare.

CTA president Forrest Claypool has said the $3 fare is necessary to discourage people from continuing to buy single-ride disposable tickets because they are overly expensive to produce, and to encourage riders to switch to the Ventra system.

The CTA expects to save $50 million over 10 years by moving to the Ventra system. The new open fare-payment system is the product of a $454 million contract with Cubic Transportation Systems Inc. and involving partners that include First Data Corp., MetaBank and MasterCard.

jhilkevitch@tribune.com
Twitter @jhilkevitch