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November 10, 2015

Ventra to release app to better connect Metra and CTA ticketing

Ventra will release an app in the coming weeks as part of an ongoing effort to better connect Metra’s services with Chicago’s other two transit agencies, CTA and Pace. A state law has spurred actions to unify Chicago’s transportation system, but some activists question Metra’s compliance.

The Chicago-area transit system was plagued for decades with constant budget crises, patronage scandals, decaying infrastructure and interagency squabbles. In 2011, the Illinois General Assembly stepped in, passing a law that brought all three Chicago-area transit agencies closer together under increased oversight by the Regional Transit Authority (RTA). The law’s most significant requirement was that by 2015, all three agencies have a “universal fare card that may be used interchangeably on all buses, rapid transit, [and] commuter rail.”

Four years later, the legislators’ vision of seamless cohesion has not been met. CTA and Pace joined together to create Ventra cards, which riders can use to board either system, but Metra refused to participate.

Given Metra’s open-access system in which riders board trains without proof of payment, installing turnstiles for Ventra would be challenging. Officials estimate that adding turnstiles, or even equipping conductors with technology to scan cards, could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Metra says that it is fulfilling its requirement and participating with Ventra primarily through the development of an app. Officials have also argued that Ventra cards have always been a viable payment option for Metra, since they can be activated as debit cards that can then be used to buy tickets.

According to Michael Gillis, spokesperson for Metra, app users will have access to mobile ticketing for Metra, transit tracking for all three agencies, and Ventra account management.

Though the Ventra app is six months behind schedule, Tammy Chase, spokesperson for CTA, suggested that it will be released in the next few weeks.

The app was developed by all three agencies, but the original plan for universal mobile ticketing has been dropped for now. CTA and Pace riders will not be able to tap-on with their smartphone apps. Only Metra users will be able to use their phone itself to validate rides by showing the app to the conductor.

Linda Thisted, co-vice president of the Coalition for Equitable Community Development, worked to get the 2011 law passed. She is now part of a network of South Side organizations that argue Metra has not conformed to the spirit of the law. Thisted critiqued the law for its age and class-based restrictions.

“[The app] excludes disproportionately people who don’t have smartphones and those are seniors and low-income people,” Thisted said. “We think that’s discriminatory.”

Thisted, like many of her fellow activists, hoped that the unified system would connect the South Side better to the rest of Chicago. For many South Siders, including most residents of Hyde Park, the Metra Electric stations are closer than any other transportation option. The Electric is the only Metra line contained entirely within city limits. According to Amalia NietoGomez, Executive Director of the Coalition for a Lakeside Collective Bargaining Agreement, people use it more like a CTA train than a regional commuter line.

Since Metra functions as a component of the urban transportation system, some Chicagoans believe it should be integrated more fully. Proponents of the law, Thisted included, had hoped and envisioned that by updating and unifying the payment system, riders would be able to switch with ease and cost-effectiveness between the three systems. Transfers were impossible with Metra’s paper tickets, but a single card like Ventra could make them a real possibility.

The law mandated that RTA oversee the development of a transfer agreement among the three transit agencies. The agencies did sign on to RTA’s transfer agreement, but its terms were relatively minor. It did not include discounted transfers, which for many had motivated their call for a universal card.

The soon-to-be-released app will not provide for discounted transfers, nor will it offer a universal option for non-smartphone users. Some South Side residents like Thisted are not satisfied with it.

“It’s a nice bell and whistle, but it’s not the solution,” Thisted said.

Gillis, however, expressed cautious approval of the Ventra app.

“It’s not necessarily the only step, but it’s the logical first step for us to be taking,” Gillis said.

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