Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday May 5th, 2016, 5:16pm

Ventra Puts Financial, Administrative Burdens On Chicago-Area Social Service Providers, Report Finds

Chicago-area social service providers that offer transit assistance to their clients want some relief from the financial and administrative challenges they claim to face when using Ventra, the regional fare-payment system.

That's according to a new survey-based report by the Chicago Jobs Council, a coalition of organizations, businesses and individuals focused on improving access to employment opportunities for people living in poverty.

Fifty-three social service providers, funded by multiple city of Chicago and Cook County agencies, participated in CJC's survey about their experiences with Ventra. The providers operate various programs, including workforce initiatives, and serve youth, the homeless and other individuals in need, according to CJC.

Social service providers, according to the survey, are being hammered by 50-cent fees for single-use Ventra cards and frequently face long wait times when ordering transit tickets in bulk. Providers also complained about Ventra's "inefficient and inconvenient" bulk ordering process, which currently lacks an online credit card payment option.

"Easing the administrative burdens and eliminating the 50-cent fee would go a really long way to helping these organizations do what they do best, which is to help people get the services they need," said CJC's Executive Director Carrie Thomas. 

Based on CJC's estimates, Chicago-area social service providers collectively spend more than $1 million each month on Ventra transit passes for their program participants.

"These riders and these individuals who need to use transit are not the ones that we should be putting the most burdens on," Thomas added. "Our main message is they need to be more visible in the process of improving Ventra."

Many of the issues cited in CJC's report are being addressed by the CTA, agency spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski said in an email.

"In fact, some of the changes we're addressing are an outgrowth of the dialogues we've had with various providers since 2013, and include more than 400 social service agencies," she said. "Work is already underway with our vendor to make online credit card purchases and delivery tracking available."

Ventra is a regional fare-payment system that the Chicago Transit Authority and Pace rolled out with a bumpy start in late 2013. Cubic Transportation Systems is the contractor operating Ventra.

Improvements have since been made to the system, which replaced magnetic-stripe fare cards with hard plastic ones. Riders tap the Ventra cards against train and bus payment readers.

Ventra's plastic cards come with a $5 one-time purchase fee, which gets added as transit value once a card is registered. The cards are reloadable and can be used for purchasing other goods via an optional prepaid debit feature. Metra is now participating in Ventra through the system's new smartphone app.

CTA train and bus riders also have the option of purchasing Ventra's disposable paper cards for a single-ride or one-day ticket. A 50-cent "limited-use" fee is applied to the single-use cards, which Chicago social service providers depend on the most for their transit assistance. According to CJC's survey, social service providers collectively buy some 600,000 limited-use Ventra tickets annually, with the 50-cent fee costing them more than $280,000.

Single-use cards are the best option for providers working with more transient populations, Thomas explained. The plastic cards, she said, are "a more permanent transit pass."

Plastic Ventra cards, the report added, "are impractical and costly" for providers and "represent a financial liability if they are lost or used to accrue a large negative balance." The hard cards also lack a "bulk online registration option," making the task of registering cards unfeasible for providers with numerous clients.

The report recommends the implementation of bulk online registration for Ventra cards and the elimination of the 50-cent fee on paper tickets for social service providers receiving city and county funding.

"Increasing access to and affordability of transit has higher rewards than costs. Without the $0.50 fee, providers could offer 112,000 more rides to classes, job interviews, or counseling appointments," the report states. "This $280,000 difference would mean a lot more to providers than to CTA and Cubic. CTA generates nearly $600 million in yearly revenue from fares and passes. Part of that revenue goes to Cubic, in addition to payments from CTA for the design and operation of the Ventra system."

Hosinski pointed out that all riders who purchase disposable paper Ventra tickets face the 50-cent fee.

"Cubic does not collect this money," she added. "This assessed fee is paid to the CTA and used purely to offset the costs associated with producing disposable farecards."

Among other key CJC survey findings, 63 percent of providers reported long wait times -- in some cases up to two months -- to receive bulk purchases of Ventra cards and tickets.

"Two months waiting for a bulk purchase of transit assistance that these organizations are using on a day-to-day basis is really onerous," Thomas said. "In that case, a lot of organizations will just send their staff to a local Ventra station and buy cards in the machine, and then there's limitations to how much you can buy in each purchase in a machine. And so you'll have organizations sending staff using multiple personal credit cards to make purchases. But they're doing all this just so they can get a lot of cards all at once since they use them so frequently."

According to the CTA, the vast majority of its bulk orders, 99.7 percent, are currently delivered to purchasers within 11 to 14 business days.

"More than 88 percent of all bulk orders are delivered within seven to 10 business days - or faster," Hosinski explained. "These turnaround times reflect the time between CTA taking receipt of the bulk order, processing of payment, coding of cards and, finally, delivery of the order to requesting agency."

Thomas, meanwhile, noted that some transit systems in the United States, such as the Metro Transit serving Minnesota's Minneapolis-St. Paul area, offer discounts to social service organizations providing transit assistance to their clients.

"They really make it easy for jobseekers and the most vulnerable residents of their cities to use transit," she said of the discount programs. "We think it's time to re-look at some of those policies and think about whether Chicago needs to prioritize those."

Hosinski weighed in on the discount issue.

"CTA has never before provided fare discounts to non-profits/social service agencies in the past, even after increases in both fares and pass prices in the past, including 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2012," she said. "Further, several other large transit agencies such as MTA [New York City], WMATA [Washington D.C. area] and MBTA [Greater Boston area] also do not offer discounts on their bulk sales to non-profits."

Hosinski continued:

While we recognize and appreciate the important mission social service agencies serve, CTA also has a duty to consider its overall agency mission. In this strained and uncertain fiscal climate, any changes to CTA fare or fare-media policies pose challenges, and must be considered in the overall context of CTA operations.

The CTA already provides over $100 million free and discounted rides annually through various state-mandated programs. The $28 million in subsidies the CTA typically receives to help cover these reduced-fare and free rides have been cut as a result of state budget cuts. CTA relies on all fare revenue to keep our budget balanced and continue to provide the cost-effective service we provide to all Chicagoans.

As we've done consistently since the launch of Ventra, we continue to work closely with the various social service organizations to help answer questions and address their concerns. While some of the survey recommendations require additional time for investigating more technical and long-term updates (i.e. online credit card payment), other matters such as the sequential card numbering and expired ticket (which are valid for eight months), can be addressed through small changes in how they manage the program.

We are committed to continuing the dialogue we have been having with social service providers to fully explore the issue and discuss options.

Image: Flickr/StevenVance

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