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Move Afoot in Chicago to Let Smartphones Pay Transit Fees

The proposed smartphone app is far from the universal fare plan envisioned for Chicago and the suburbs 15 years ago, but officials say it's a first step.

Smartphones would work like "virtual Ventra cards'' under a $2.5 million plan presented Wednesday to quickly knit together a regionwide mobile transit fare-payment system.

The proposed Ventra smartphone app is far from the simple, universal fare plan envisioned for Chicago and the suburbs by transportation experts 15 years ago. But officials at the CTA, Metra and Pace said it's a first step.

Perhaps most significant, the three-agency agreement brings Metra into the Ventra fold, a little more than a year after the CTA and Pace introduced the Ventra fare card to riders as a replacement for transit smart cards and plastic and paper transit cards with old magnetic-stripe technology.

But will commuters gravitate in large numbers to smartphone payments? Some riders at the Ogilvie Transportation Center said they would be nervous — some even unwilling — to provide personal information required to open a Ventra account.

"It's better to pay cash or credit card and walk out," said Sujay Shah, 57, of Rogers Park.

But Jasmin Juarez, 20, a North Sider, said she would definitely use the app.

"I think that would be pretty cool," Juarez said. "It's a faster and more convenient way."

Anticipated to roll out in phases early next year through 2016, the new mobile app-based system will give riders options. They can use Android or iPhone mobile electronic devices to display and pay fares on all three transit systems, or continue using Ventra cards on CTA and Pace. They can also pay with contactless credit and debit cards or cash, Mike Gwinn, CTA director of revenue and fare systems, told the CTA board during its monthly meeting.

The CTA approved the plan.

Metra Executive Director Don Orseno told the CTA board that testing of mobile ticketing will begin in February on all 11 Metra lines, with "full implementation" by the end of 2015.

For CTA and Pace riders, the app will fill some customer-unfriendly voids in the existing Ventra system, including by letting commuters check Ventra account balances, which are no longer displayed on bus and rail turnstiles. Transit officials also hope smartphone fare payments will speed up boarding at bus stops, at crowded train stations and on Metra platforms.

The app will allow customers to load money and passes onto their smartphones, check their balances, view their riding histories, plan transit trips and receive next-bus and next-train arrival and departure information.

Yet there are reasons for concern as well.

Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul University professor who specializes in transportation, said the app, while a welcome development, is "still a long way from being able to buy just one ticket to get from Point A to Point B."

In addition, many details of the mobile-ticketing app remain to be worked out by a contractor with a spotty track record in Chicago.

Cubic Transportation Systems, of San Diego, developed the Ventra fare card system, which was troubled from its inception in September 2013 by serious technical problems and inadequate customer service. The CTA even withheld payment on its $454 million contract with Cubic, which needed about four months to resolve the mess.

Now Cubic takes on the task of managing the mobile app, which was described Wednesday as a full-service alternative to the Ventra website. GlobeSherpa, a mobile app developer, is creating the app with Cubic and the three transit agencies, officials said.

The free app will be tested in part by riders who volunteer to be the commuter version of guinea pigs. Those riders will be asked to buy single transit fares or passes through the online smartphone app using personal credit or debit cards and see whether the fares they've bought and stored are successfully validated by their online accounts.

Once the app is activated on Metra, customers will present their smartphones, loaded with one-ride tickets or passes, to conductors. The conductors will "visually validate'' the fares, using specialized animation and verification codes on the smartphone tickets, said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis. Conductors might later be issued electronic hand-held devices to validate fares, he said.

CTA and Pace riders will call up tickets or passes on smartphone screens and tap their smartphones against fare readers aboard buses and at CTA rail stations.

Nearly 80 percent of CTA riders own smartphones, according to the agency's latest customer survey. Riders without smartphones won't be able to participate.

The Illinois General Assembly has set a January 2015 deadline for the CTA, Metra and Pace to implement a regional fare payment system. The general understanding of the law was that it mandated a universal fare card that could be used on all three transit systems.

The changes announced Wednesday do not constitute the universal fare system that was envisioned as far back as the late 1990s, however. In its purest form, a one-size-fits-all system would permit a seamless transfer from one transit agency to another by enabling all transit riders to use a single type of fare media — and pay the same fare across the board — on all three transit systems.

Metra lawyers have said the rail agency already complies, because it allows Ventra users to pay for train tickets by using the Ventra card's optional prepaid debit MasterCard account. Metra Chairman Martin Oberman said the $2.5 million agreement with Metra's sister agencies and Cubic "lays the groundwork to eventually have a universal fare system."

The CTA's share to develop the app is $1.7 million. The Metra board will be asked Friday to sign off on paying $500,000, while Pace is paying about $300,000.

The three transit agencies will also incur monthly costs for operation, maintenance and customer service. In addition, they will reimburse Cubic for credit card processing fees and pay Cubic commissions on fares.

CTA President Forrest Claypool said the cooperation between the CTA and Metra did not occur sooner because the previous Metra executive director, Alex Clifford, "was not enamored" with "the Ventra solution."

Claypool said that, in the past, the agencies were "cooperative to some degree."

Too often, he said, "It was like a tree talking in the woods and nobody was around to hear it."

Schwieterman said he hopes the agencies will consider additional innovation, including offering discounts for off-peak travel as a way to boost ridership or to promote the use of more than one system to cut down on driving.

"The elephant in the room is the question of whether the agencies will eventually use Ventra to offer discounts for passengers connecting between Metra and the CTA," he said. "We'll have to remain patient on that one."

©2014 the Chicago Tribune