Did You Know?

Only 11 percent of Chicagoland residents ride transit to work.

Sorting out the pros and cons of CTA’s new Ventra Card

If you read Wednesday’s Tribune headline, CTA's Ventra debit option rife with fees, you might wonder why CTA is sticking transit riders with a bunch of new fees. Read beyond the headline, and you’ll find that’s a bit overstated./

Let’s start with this: The new Ventra card will be very similar to the current Chicago Card as a touch-and-go, reloadable transit fare card for CTA and PACE. There are two big changes coming that we know of.

  1. People with state-of-the-art credit cards will be able to use those to pay transit fares and won’t need a Ventra card. Fewer cards in your wallet and streamlined payment — nice!
  2. You will have the OPTION to use the Ventra card as a debit card to buy things like food, clothes, etc. from retailers. In short, Ventra gives you a transit account and an optional debit account for other purchases. This is what the Tribune story focuses on, and we can thank them for alerting us to these fees, which will help people decide whether to opt for the debit feature.

As with any debit card you would get from a bank or Master Card, you'll pay various fees — fees that are often lost in the fine print until you get your bill — to use and manage the debit function. So, if you don’t want to deal with the fees or just don’t need another debit/credit card, then don’t activate the debit function on the Ventra card. Let’s hope this is clear and people don’t accidentally register for the debit feature.

At the same time, I fear some people might read the news articles and think all these new fees apply to paying for transit with Ventra, which they don’t. So how does Ventra compare to the Chicago Card in that respect? Lose your card, pay $5 for replacement — same as the Chicago Card.

There are some new transit account fees we don’t like, including the “dormancy” fee of $5/month that would be assessed for accounts that are inactive 18 months or more. And we hear employers will be charged $1.50 per month for making pre-tax transit benefit payments on behalf of their employees. Currently, RTA charges 50 cents per month and the CTA/Chicago Card nothing. This fee increase makes the transit benefit less attractive for employers to participate in.

There is much discussion about what Ventra means for “unbanked,” low income people. CTA says it gives them access to financial instruments they don’t currently have or that they have to pay more for at currency exchanges. Others worry that low income people will sign up for the Ventra debit card feature, not understanding that they have to pay the fees.

That’s a fair concern. We also worry about low income people paying the escalated $3 fare for single use cards rather than getting the Ventra card, which requires going through the registration process and making a minimum $5 purchase.

Ideally, everyone will switch to touch-and-go Ventra cards and personal credit cards (which means faster loading of buses and trains), avoid the single use cards, and knowingly decide whether to opt into the debit feature. CTA needs to step up the outreach to make this happen.

This blog post was updated March 28, 2013 to clarify that the $1.50/month charge for transit-benefit administration is paid by employers — not customers.