This is part one of a series on the perils of privatization. Check back soon for the next installment.
Riding the buses in Chicago has been awfully fun this busy Christmas Season. Half the time, it’s been free.
This fall, you see, after a series of delays, the city brought online a new fare payment system called “Ventra” in which customers tap “smart cards” against electronic readers at bus entrances and train station turnstiles. Only it turns out these cards are not so smart. Half the time, tap after tap after tap, the damned things don’t work, and the bus driver just exasperatedly waves you through. Although it hasn’t been as much fun for the passengers who exited the bus through the front door and discovered that, if their purses or backpacks brushed too close to the reader, they were charged twice. Or for a guy named Al Stern who became a local celebrity after receiving an e-mail on Friday, September 6, informing him he’d be receiving a Ventra card in the mail soon to replace his “Chicago Card,” which was the previous prepayment system (which worked fine). Four minutes later he got the same e-mail, then four minutes after that, then four minutes again after that, and so on and so forth all the way until the next morning. Twenty-four days later he arrived home to a pile of 91 envelopes shoved through his mail slot, each holding a Ventra card; the next day, 176 more arrived, each one, he later discovered, canceling the last. “You have to call and activate it,” he told Crain’s Chicago Business, “but I’ve been afraid to do that.”
The goofs accelerated, like Lucille Ball working at the assembly line, or Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. At the end of November federal workers discovered they could “pay” fares by scanning their employee IDs. (“Please be advised that intentional misuse of federal credentials is prohibited,” the local EPA office wrote employees.) Other customers reported being double-, triple- or even quadruple-billed. At the end of October the Chicago Tribune reported, “CTA employees are being ‘verbally attacked daily by angry riders’ who are blaming them for problems with the new transit-fare payment system”; their union called on the Chicago Transit Authority to scrap Ventra until the bugs were worked out. The city started charging the vendor for the proliferating lost revenue, while that vendor kept promising serial “software fixes” that never seemed to do anything but introduce novel problems. At the end of November came news that when people tapped their wallets, like they used to do without problem with their old Chicago Cards, random credit or debit cards were charged. Then, last week, the “CTA: Ventra Glitches Mostly Gone But Delays Remain.” Rush-hour outages began, and some buses stopping accepting fares altogether. That came two days after the headline, ""CTA: Ventra glitches mostly gone but delays remain."