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The Chicago Transit Authority’s Ventra Card is the second open ticketing system to have been implemented in the United States, following that implemented by UTA Trax. Although the system has successfully incorporated non-agency specific fare media and has been adopted by the Chicago area’s three largest transit agencies, the system’s lack of user-friendliness, error-ridden implementation and cost overruns speak to the problems with an abrupt transition to new ticketing systems and with contracting all components of a ticketing system to a single provider.


Ventra is an account-based, open-loop electronic ticketing system that is used for bus and heavy rail transit services operated by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Pace Suburban Bus and on Metra's commuter rail network. Card readers on Metra and Pace buses and trains accept contactless bank cards[1], Near Field Communication-based mobile wallet applications--like Android Pay and Apple Pay[2]--, an agency-issued smart card[3], and contactless paper tickets[3]. The agency-issued smart card, known as "Ventra Card," can be purchased from vending machines, designated retail outlets or online, with a 5$ fee imposed for vending machine and retail purchases[4]. Riders can register cards online (or on the Ventra mobile application) so that they can load value, manage their balance and protect against theft[4]. Riders can also register their Ventra Cards with a "MoneyNetwork" service operated by MasterCard so that they can use their card as a prepaid debit card for non-transit purposes[5]. Using the Ventra Card as a prepaid debit card entails additional fees for money withdrawal and loading cash at third-party retailers[6]. Payment of Metra tickets can be made through Ventra's mobile ticketing application[7], which allows for the purchase and display of 2-dimensional barcode tickets for use on Metra and the loading of value (and management of account balances) on registered Ventra Cards.


In the late 2000s, the Chicago Transit Authority (which operates the Chicago “L” and buses within the urban core) began assessing options to replace its proprietary Chicago Card smart card system (whose computer chip hardware had gone out of production). The high capital costs of replacing the Chicago Card with a similar system and a desire to enhance user-friendliness led the CTA to examine transitioning to an open ticketing system. The agency issued Requests for Proposals in 2009. After two rounds of RFPs, the agency awarded the contract to San Diego-based Cubic Corporation , which offered a $454 million bid (that beat Samsung’s bid of $1.46 billion). Cubic has implemented ticketing systems for many California agencies (including the Los Angeles County Metro and San Diego Metropolitan Transit System). The contract, signed in December 2011, is structured on a design-build-operate-maintain model . The contract not only gives Cubic responsibility for implementing the system, including supply of all equipment and software, but for providing the website customer call center and retail network The contract has a 12-year term, and imposes cancellation charges if the agency terminates the contract prior to the end of the term. State legislation, passed in the same year, mandated that all agencies belonging to Chicago's Regional Transit Authority (namely, the CTA, Metra and Pace) have adopted a regional fare payment system by 2015[8]. The legislation's specification of a system that would "allow consumers to use contactless credit cards, debit cards, and prepaid cards" corresponded to the attributes of the system proposed by the CTA's contract.

The new fare payment system, named Ventra, was launched on the Chicago Transit Authority in August 2013. In the months following implementation, many riders complained about difficulties with online activation and card reader glitches: between the beginning of October and middle of December, alone, the CTA had to give away $1.2 million worth in free rides due to card reader malfunctioning. Lengthy wait times for customer service calls (which ranged from 2 to 6 minutes, on average in the middle of November) were another cause for dissatisfaction . The 5$ fee for purchasing a new card impeded bulk transit pass purchases by social service agencies, for whom investment in fare media poses a liability (even the 50-cent cost of purchasing paper passes through Ventra has forced agencies to limit pass distribution). More generally, the $5 dollar card purchase fee, along with penalty fees for inactivity, and fees for requesting paper copies impact use by low-income, transit-dependent populations. An analysis cited in the Chicago Tribune showed that the card’s prepaid debit option cost the average customer $188 in annual fees.

At the same time, the fixed term of the contract has allowed Cubic to impose extensive change orders to the system. By March 2015, the CTA’s contract with Cubic had ballooned from $454 million to $519 million due to contract add-ons.

Pace Suburban Bus joined the Ventra Card system in September 2013, shortly after the system's launch on the CTA[9]. Due to the need to develop the mobile application, riders could not use their Ventra account to pay for Metra rides until mid-November 2015, less than two months before the deadline mandated by state legislation[10]


The card’s bumpy release underscores the need to test a system before release (and preferably phase in use of the card rather than instituting a sudden transition). Customer Service complaints point to the problem of delegating this responsibility to a third-party (in this case, the system manufacturer, Cubic). Indeed, Cubic’s power in the contract, structured as a public-private partnership, seems a bit inordinate: the agency not only has the authority to design, finance and operate the system but to provide the website and customer service center. As one blog notes, the CTA could have saved money and the hassle of an abrupt transition if it switched to cubic card reader technology while maintaining use of the system’s pre-existing smart card.

  1. Ventra. "Featured Questions: Paying with Contactless Bankcards and Mobile Devices." [1]
  2. Ventra. "How-To: Paying with Apply Pay, Android Pay or Samsung Pay." [2]
  3. 3.0 3.1 Ventra. "Ventra: How it Works." [3]
  4. 4.0 4.1 Ventra. "About Ventra Cards." [4]
  5. Ventra MoneyNetwork. " Your Prepaid Debit Account: Getting Started." [5]
  6. "Prepaid Debit Fee Schedule." [6]
  7. Ventra. "Ventra App: The Basics." [7]
  8. Illinois General Assembly. "Public Act 097-0085." [8]
  9. Pyke, Marni. "New CTA, Pace Fare System to begin Monday." [9]
  10. "Metra Customers Use App for One-Millionth Ride." [10]