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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

To Really Foul Things Up, Chicago|Privatizes Transit Payment System

CHICAGO (CN) - Chicago's newly privatized transit fare card system, widely derided as a fiasco, deducts money from riders' bank accounts crediting it to their cards, double bills them, sometimes doesn't issue cards at all, and issued one woman 274 cards, according to a federal class action and news reports.

Lead plaintiff Min Ro sued the private contractor, Cubic Corp., Cubic Transportation Systems, its Chicago affiliate, and the Chicago Transit Authority.

The CTA runs the city's buses and trains, including the famous El.

In 2011 the CTA awarded Cubic a $454 million contract to develop an automated fare system for customers to pay for bus and train rides with a single fare card throughout the Chicago region.

The Ventra system went live in September this year. It was to replace the old fare system by Dec. 15, but that date has been pushed back indefinitely.

"The Ventra system experienced a multitude of problems after being rolled out to the public, such as extremely poor customer service, failing to deliver Ventra cards to customers, overcharging customers, and equipment and Ventra card failures, making the planned transition to the Ventra system in the time-frame represented impossible," the complaint states.

Many people who ordered a Ventra card online never received it in the mail. Others received multiple cards. One rider received 274 Ventra cards, all in her name, according to RedeyeChicago.com, an online Tribune newspaper.

Riders also frequently report being charged twice for one fare.

Speaking to a Ventra customer service agent often requires waiting on hold for more than an hour, and is impossible during evenings and weekends.

On Nov. 13, Ventra card-readers at almost half of CTA's train stations failed just before evening rush hour. Commuters waited in long lines waiting until the CTA decided to wave 15,000 people through the turnstiles for free.

"The reason that neither Cubic nor the CTA notified the public about any potential problems was that the CTA faced significant pressure to begin the Ventra implementation on schedule based on its promises and representations to the public," the complaint states. "Furthermore, Cubic had a powerful financial incentive to get the CTA to proclaim Ventra largely bug-free and well on its way to full deployment, as once that happened, the CTA was contractually obligated to begin paying Cubic at least $2.5 million per month."

Ro says she paid a $5 non-refundable fee for her first Ventra Card, a fee the card contract stated would be "credited to your Ventra account as transit value if you register your account within 90 days of purchasing your Ventra Card."

She says she registered in September, but never got the $5 credit.

"Additionally, plaintiff attempted to load transit value onto her Ventra card and Ventra account on various dates since September, 2013, at various Ventra vending machines and online at www.ventrachicago.com. Although the Ventra system debited money from plaintiff's bank account when she attempted to load transit value onto her Ventra card and Ventra account, the transit value was never loaded onto her Ventra card or Ventra account," Ro claims.

A mock Ventra Twitter account spoofing the new system has gained almost 4,000 followers.

Recent tweets include: "Happy #CyberMonday, Chicago! Today, we're offering 2-for-1 charges on #Ventra!" And: "Problems with your #Ventra Card? Never fear! Just learn how to hang glide, go up to the roof, aim for the closest CTA station and go!"

The CTA claims the contract will save it more than $50 million in the next 10 years.

But due to the system's problems, CTA President Forrest Claypool has vowed not to pay Cubic any money until 99 percent of calls to the Ventra call center are answered within five minutes, 99 percent of payment taps are registered within 2.5 seconds, and 99 percent of Ventra card readers work.

Ro seeks restitution and damages for breach of contract, fraud, and unjust enrichment.

She is represented by Thomas Zimmerman Jr.

The Ventra deal was made three years after Chicago privatized its parking spaces, in another deal criticized as a boondoggle. The city sold 36,000 parking spaces to an investment group led by Morgan Stanley for $1.16 billion - just one-tenth the amount that Chicago drivers are projected to spend for parking over the 75-year life of the contract.

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