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CTA Union: Ventra System Allowing Commuters To Ride For Free

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(CBS) – The CTA’s soon-to-be-phased out Chicago Card and Chicago card Plus shut off if the cash balance on the card reaches zero. But apparently that’s not the case with the Ventra card, and the head of one of he CTA’s two major operating unions said some riders are taking advantage of it.

Amalgamated Transit Union Division 308 President Robert Kelly presented reporters Thursday with a photo of an overdrawn Ventra card with a negative balance of $272.50, the equivalent of 123 rides on a balance of zero or lower.

He also related the story of a man who told a CTA customer service representative that he was carrying Ventra cards with negative balances of $66, $44, $39 and $7 and that he had a fifth card at home with a negative balance of $139 — and said all of them worked.

Kelly said there seems to be no rhyme or reason to when or how Ventra cards get shut off.

“If the riding public has figured out that I can ride on negative balances, why pay? Who’s out the money? How are they going to collect it?” Kelly asked.

CTA responded immediately with a statement in which it said vendor Cubic Transportation Systems immediately pays CTA, that Cubic “bears all risk” and is responsible for any recovery that must be done. While many Ventra cards are linked to a credit card or are registered by their owners, some are not and cannot be traced to a specific owner.

WBBM and a second reporter tested the system to try to verify Kelly’s claims. A newly-purchased card, loaded with only $5 in fares, was used six times successfully. But after checking the account balance, which registered the correct -$8.50, access at the turnstile was denied.

A CTA customer service representative on duty at the time said simply, “These cards have issues.”

Kelly said this latest discovery is reason enough for the Regional Transportation Authority to conduct an audit of Ventra. RTA Chairman John Gates ordered the audit Wednesday. Gates wants to know how much Ventra’s problems have cost the agency, most notably the rush-hour meltdown last week during which card readers malfunctioned at 60 ‘L’ stations.

CTA has said it let 15,000 people ride for free. Kelly said he has seen paperwork from one station — Merchandise Mart — in which 5,000 riders were listed as riding free.

Kelly said there is no real way to know how many riders paid nothing that day because many were let through turnstiles without the use of an access card by CTA employees.

“We’re talking about thousands of dollars,” Kelly said. “Someone needs to be held accountable before this gets to the point that the losses cannot be recovered.’’

CTA is to begin weekly briefings on the Ventra transition Friday. He promised the updates after scrapping the original Dec. 15 deadline to complete the transition from old fare media to Ventra.

Kelly would like to see Ventra abandoned, but transit officials have said sticking with the old fare media is not a long-term possibility because the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus utilize the same chip once used in production of the Game Boy. The chips were last manufactured in 2006 and CTA has drawn on a dwindling stockpile of chips for new and replacement Chicago Cards.

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