Chicago Tribune: Social service agencies, homeless feel pinch of Ventra single-ride pass surcharge

By Mary Wisniewski 

Unity Parenting and Counseling supervisor Anne Holcomb buys single-ride Ventra tickets from a vending machine at a CTA Green Line station Aug. 22, 2016, as James Ivory, left, a client with the social service agency, looks on. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
Unity Parenting and Counseling supervisor Anne Holcomb buys single-ride Ventra tickets from a vending machine at a CTA Green Line station Aug. 22, 2016, as James Ivory, left, a client with the social service agency, looks on. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

After a night at an Englewood shelter for homeless youth, James Ivory used to be handed two CTA single-ride passes — one to go to school or look for work, the other to return to the shelter in the evening.

But after the CTA started the Ventra system, a 50-cent surcharge was tacked on to single-ride passes, and cash-strapped Unity Parenting and Counseling, which runs the Ujima Village Shelter, could give clients only one pass each.

Now the homeless get back anyway they can — walking miles across gang boundaries, jumping turnstiles or begging strangers to use their Ventra cards for a free ride, said A.Anne Holcomb, supportive services supervisor for Unity.

“We’d wait for someone to come off the train and ask, ‘Can you put me on?'” said Ivory, 26, who has since left the shelter and has a job. He said asking strangers for free rides hurt his pride, and he saw a friend arrested for it.

After a bumpy transition that eliminated the old magnetic-stripe card system in July 2014, the CTA touts Ventra, run by Cubic Transportation Systems, as a success, with 4 million accounts. CTA says Ventra cuts waste, saves time at turnstiles through tap-on technology, and allows customers to add value to their cards online, at vending machines, at retail locations or by phone.

But for social service agencies that give away CTA passes to the poor to use for traveling to job interviews or doctor visits, Ventra is cumbersome and costly, and has cut into the number of rides they can offer. The CTA said it has been working to address these concerns, but social service providers say they keep running into delays and misunderstanding.

“Adding the extra 50 cents on seems like they’re trying to stop people from helping people,” Ivory said.

Demand for change

Last week, the Chicago Jobs Council, an employment advocacy group, sent a letter to CTA President Dorval Carter and the CTA board. The letter, signed by more than 40 social service providers and policy advocates, including StreetWise, The Night Ministry and the Active Transportation Alliance, wants three improvements to the Ventra system.

The letter asks the CTA to waive the 50-cent surcharge for paper passes for social service providers; facilitate online bulk purchases of Ventra tickets to replace the current, antiquated paper order system; and implement high-capacity vending machines for Ventra purchases. All of these changes would save money and administrative work for agencies already hit hard by state and federal budget cuts, providers say.

Social service agencies are a big transit client — the Jobs Council estimates that services that help the homeless and unemployed in Cook County spend $1.5 million a month on Ventra.

Most agencies that help the poor prefer to use single-ride or, to a lesser extent, multiday paper passes for transient populations rather than Ventra “hard cards,” because they are easier to distribute and keep track of.

But the surcharges on the passes cost agencies at least $280,000 a year — which is a lot for services already operating on thin margins, according to the Jobs Council, which published a report about Ventra in May.

“I’ve got a guy sitting at my front desk right now who needs a bus pass for a new job, and we can’t afford to buy it,” said Charles Hardwick, manager of the Howard Area Community Center, which provides employment resources.

Waiving the surcharge for passes is not an option — it covers the production and administrative costs of the limited-use tickets, said CTA spokesman Brian Steele. Former CTA President Forrest Claypool, now head of Chicago Public Schools, had predicted the cards would be used mostly be tourists.

The CTA recommends that agencies use rechargeable Ventra cards instead of paper passes to get the most transit value for the money, Steele said. But social service providers say buying the plastic cards at $5 each can be risky.

To convert the $5 cost of the card to transit value, the cards must be registered with Ventra. Many social service clients cannot register the cards for themselves, because they lack addresses, phone numbers and email. If the cards are registered to the agencies, clients can run up negative balances — one agency got stuck with $500 in debt on just 25 cards, said Eric Halvorson, policy and communications director for the Jobs Council.

Social service recipients also lose the cards or walk off with them, providers say.

“With the population I’m serving, there is a challenge to do their due diligence with everything in life,” Hardwick said. “That’s why we call them clients.”

Bulk purchase woes

Agencies also complain of the CTA’s system for buying fare cards in bulk, which requires a check or money order and a handwritten order form. The CTA said most orders take 10 to 14 days, but some providers reported waiting two months, the Jobs Council said. Because of the wait for orders, providers often choose to buy the passes at “L” station vending machines.

“It’s a nightmare,” said Unity Parenting’s Holcomb. She can spend as much as three to six tedious hours a week standing at vending machines, buying hundreds of cards in sets of eight.

Because the machines limit purchases to 64 cards on one credit card, she has to use different cards, including her own. “Good thing I have good credit,” she said, laughing.

The CTA has offered some solutions, such as allowing service agencies to act as retailers and keep a bunch of blank Ventra cards to register and hand out to clients as needed and replenish funds when requested. About two dozen agencies do this, according to CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase. Bulk ticket orders make up about 1.5 percent of the CTA’s Ventra sales, Chase said.

The agency also plans to streamline the bulk ordering process by the end of the year and enable providers to use credit cards to make orders, which they can then track online, Chase said.

She said about two dozen social service agencies act as a Ventra retailer, providing cards to their clients and replenishing funds on those cards for them when requested. Halvorson said keeping a stock of Ventra cards works for some agencies that have small groups of regular clients, but it does not work for others with more transient populations.

As for CTA’s offer to streamline the ordering process, Halvorson said providers have been hearing this promise since they first started talking with the CTA about Ventra in October 2013. First that was supposed to happen in early 2014, then late 2014 and now 2016.

“They’ve continued to push the timeline back,” Halvorson said. “I hope it’s true this time.”

Halvorson noted that Metro Transit of Minneapolis-St. Paul provides discounts on passes for service providers for the homeless, and wonders why the CTA and Cubic cannot provide a break on the surcharge, or on bulk orders.

“In pretty much any other purchasing situation, buying in bulk gets you a discount,” Halvorson said.

Chase said the agency already provides $100 million annually in free and reduced rides to the elderly, students, military members and the disabled. Because of Illinois budget problems — the same problems hurting the service agencies — the CTA gets back only about $28 million of that from the state.

Social service agencies should investigate whether some of their clients may be eligible for free or reduced fares, Chase said.

Hardwick said everyone he has talked to at the CTA about his agency’s Ventra troubles has been “very nice,” but he does not think anything will change.

“The attitude is ‘This is how it is,'” he said.

Back-to-school on transit

Speaking of reduced fares, classes have just started for many suburban, parochial and charter school students, and will begin for CPS on Sept. 6, so now is a good time to get transit cards for kids.

On the CTA, students age 20 or younger qualify for a 75-cent student-reduced fare with a valid student Ventra card. CPS issues the cards directly, as do some private, charter and parochial schools. If your school does not, you can find out about getting the cards at The cards can be used on school days between 5:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m.

College students have a separate CTA program, known as the U-Pass.

Metra also offers full-time elementary school and high school students reduced one-way, 10-ride and monthly passes. When buying a ticket, students must present a valid letter of certification from their school or a valid student identification card. Discounted tickets are honored from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Pace offers a reduced-fare 30-day pass for students for $30, according to the Regional Transportation Authority. Pace also offers a Campus Connection pass that gives unlimited rides to college students throughout the semester.