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Transportation Tue Nov 19 2013

Why Did We Even Get Ventra? Ask The RTA

In the wake of the seemingly endless problems with Ventra, some aldermen have called for an official hearing on the glitch-prone transit fare collection system created by Cubic Transportation Systems.

As reported last week in the Chicago Sun-Times, Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) questioned why the state even required the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace, and Metra transit systems to go under one payment system.

As it turns out, the law was pushed by the very same governmental organization currently overseeing the Ventra transition -- the Regional Transportation Authority.

In 2011, a bill passed in the Illinois General Assembly, requiring the CTA, Pace and Metra to operate under a universal, open-fare payment system by 2015. This law was then signed by Governor Pat Quinn.

Four months later, the CTA approved a $454 million contract with Cubic Transportation Systems to implement the sort of system that state law now required.

One group lobbying for this change was the RTA. Created in 1974 to address and coordinate public transit needs across Chicagoland and the great Northeastern Illinois region, the organization was given direct oversight of the CTA, Pace and Metra in 1983 -- all with separate boards of directors controlled by separate government entities, as spelled out on their website:

The CTA, Metra and Pace are each led by a Board of Directors which determines levels of service, fares and operational policies. The CTA is governed by the Chicago Transit Board whose seven members are appointed by the Mayor of Chicago and the governor. Metra's Board consists of 11 members appointed by the region's county boards and the Mayor of Chicago. Pace is governed by a 12-member Board made up of current and former suburban village presidents and mayors.

Currently, the RTA is in charge of making CTA and Pace (and eventually Metra) customers switch to Ventra and mailing them fare cards. But RTA's operation of a Ventra-like open fare system has been in the works for years.

Among the goals in the RTA's 2013-2018 Regional Transit Strategic Plan [PDF], is "II. Improve The Customer Experience Through A Modernized & Integrated System," a plan with the following recommendation:

While our region's transit system is a legacy system, technological advancements such as integrated real-time information and open fare payment systems can be employed to modernize the customer experience and to allow for more seamless travel across CTA, Metra and Pace.

As RTA Board Chairman John S. Gates, Jr. noted in a press release:

We were heavily involved with drafting the bill so obviously, we strongly endorse the move toward establishing an open fare payment system. The new law will help expedite the process but even before it became law last Thursday, the RTA and the service boards took steps to introduce technology that will benefit our transit system's two million daily riders. A joint task force with the RTA and service boards has been formed to implement the open fare payment system.

According to an earlier press release, RTA has explored implementing a "seamless regional payment system" at least as far back as 2009.

Since the universal fare bill became law, the RTA and related transit systems have faced budget crises and patronage scandals. These have culminated to the point where both Gov. Quinn's office and the SouthtownStar have called for finding ways to reduce waste and bureaucracy and eventually overhaul the entire regional transit system.

From this perspective, the need for a system like Ventra makes sense. Uniting transit fare payment under a single system is one major step towards merging the transit systems together under the RTA umbrella, and reducing overall transit costs and inter-agency squabbles.

Obviously, that first step hasn't quite gone as planned.

In the meantime, the RTA has its monthly meeting tomorrow in Chicago. Minutes from last month's meeting included Ventra, and it would be hard to imagine them not discussing the program in light of the past month's news cycle.

Then again, they have a variety of other issues to discuss, including the CTA's credit downgrade by Moody's; controversy over how the RTA splits discretionary revenue between CTA, Pace and Metra in favor of city commuters; and the scheduled discussion on their report on how to avoid patronage hires at Metra -- just in time for reports of Metra's deputy CEO going on paid leave for undisclosed reasons.

Clearly, RTA has a number of complicated issues to deal with over the near- and long-term.

Unfortunately for them (and us), the open fare payment system they've wanted for years has just become their biggest issue of all.

captain / November 19, 2013 10:31 AM

as much as we all like to roll our eyes at selling off public assets to the private sector, I cant think of a corporation on earth that would allow itself to be sore poorly operated. boards of elderly mayors and buerocrats are never going to be able to implement changes needed to run a smooth operation in a timely matter. its time to step aside and let talented people run pace/cta/metra before it turns into the USPS

Dan S / November 19, 2013 11:10 AM

How many people transfer from Metra or Pace to CTA everyday? Is this whole mess just to make those few lives a little bit easier when making transfers??? This is like when a restaurant redesigns its menu as a guise to raise prices on the food.

Jim / November 19, 2013 11:21 AM

@Captain -- You mean the U.S. Postal Service that sends, what, millions? billions? of pieces of mail every day from one end of the continent to the other with very few problems?

@Dan -- WAY more than a "few" people transfer from Metra and Pace to the CTA -- and many more, like myself, would consider going that route, instead of commuting by car, if the systems worked together better (i.e., didn't require the purchase of separate tickets).

Dan S / November 19, 2013 11:29 AM

@Jim - So purchasing separate tickets is stopping you from driving and I'm assuming parking??? Seems like you still save money by not buying gas despite the two ticket system...I call bull

Jim / November 19, 2013 11:39 AM

@Dan -- Well, as much as I appreciate your explaining my own thought process to me, the reality is that two tickets cost more than one. Of course, no one wants this current mess of a transition -- and I can't speak to what the final price will/would be for a combo CTA/Metra ticket.

My point is that you shouldn't underestimate the value for many commuters of having a unified Chicago-area public transit system.

captain1 / November 19, 2013 12:27 PM

@Dan not only is it more convenient but jobs could be consolidated in the process saving money

@Jim no i mean the postal service that constantly bleeds money and employs people who couldnt handle the frier at popeyes and have cousins in political office.

not a white dude / November 19, 2013 3:28 PM

...white dudes on the internet

cg / November 21, 2013 12:42 PM

Ventra/Cubic Transportation Systems is a corporation and selling off Chicago's parking to a private entity was a ripoff. These public to private selloffs do not have a good history.

USPS is losing money because of forced funding to its retirement system faster than necessary.

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