It begins with a minor inconvenience.
A consumer, let’s just call him “Joe,” had to wait a week longer for his new Ventra card than promised.
Now that it has finally arrived, he can experience the “upgraded” Chicago Transit Authority system that CTA President Forrest Claypool mandated for all public transportation.
Joe activates it and puts money on it. Later, he walks to the nearest el station. He swipes the card, but nothing happens. He swipes it again, and the digital readout on the turnstile still denies his entrance to the train platform.
Joe asks the conductor why his card is not working. The conductor swipes it on the nearest Ventra balance machine and discovers the problem immediately: the card has a negative balance.
Wondering how that is possible after he has put money on it — his bank balance backs this up — and that it was his first time using the card, Joes noted that a negative balance on a bus card makes no sense.
The conductor takes pity on Joe’s plight and allows him to pass through the turnstile, but suggests that he contact customer service to clear the matter up. He calls customer service upon reaching his destination and is immediately put on hold for approximately 40 minutes. After the wait, the operator answers and Joe hears the line go dead around the time he utters the phrase, “…the card isn’t showing my balance.”
Eventually, Joe calls the customer service line back, fully explains his grievance, and is told it “will be addressed shortly.” That basically means that it will be forwarded to another service agent who will contact Joe in two days.
Ultimately, Joe feels like perhaps it was somewhat telling that the service was called “Ventra.” It’s a reference to the Latin word ventosa, meaning “Windy,” which scholarly Chicagoans know alludes to the political corruption abreast in the city and not a gust of air from the lake.
The scenario just described is becoming more common for CTA riders.
The Ventra system, which launched in August, his been a disaster of foresight and planning. Customers have complained about everything from needing to swipe their cards several times to having to wait nearly two weeks for their cards to arrive by mail.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that Richard Wunderle, head of North American operations of Cubic Transportation Systems Inc., the firm that CTA contracted to implement the card system, told the press recently that he “can’t give a best guess” when the cards will work properly.
A stunning lack of empathy.
This adds credence to the theory that the system is the boondoggle it was deemed by some Chicagoans in its planning stages. It appears to have been created in a smoke-filled room of men twirling their mustaches; foisting onto consumers something with few alternatives if it failed to meet expectations.
The silver lining here is that the deal the Chicago Transit Board struck with Cubic — a $454 million, 12-year contract for an Open Standards Fare System made without upfront costs — cannot be paid until the program is working properly.
According to Claypool, this means that wait times on Ventra’s customer hotline are under five minutes before an operator handles a call. “Working properly” also means that fare readers process transactions in 2.5 seconds or less, and 99 percent of Ventra equipment is functioning properly.
This means that Mayor Rahm Emanuel wields some authority over the firm to assure that problems are fixed.
But since the program was implemented with no feedback from constituents or alternative plan due to “bugs” in the system, the mayor faces a potential political backlash if this turns into a complete bust.
The mayor, much like Joe waiting endlessly for customer support that never arrives, is at the mercy of the program that is too big to fail.