In what appears to be another stumble in the city’s transition to the new Ventra fare-collection system, thousands of young Chicagoans are paying more in train and bus fares than they should be this summer.
Typically, students under age 20 going to summer school or jobs programs would pay reduced CTA fares—currently $0.75 per ride and $0.15 for a transfer.
But many have gotten a rude awakening this summer when they’ve used their student cards on buses or trains.
“I swiped it, and I had (added) a dollar. Usually a dollar is good for me to get over here, but it said ‘insufficient fares,’" said student Cesar Fierro in the hallway of his high school, Noble Street College Prep. Fierro rides on a student Ventra card he purchased at school.
He’s been paying $4.50, every day, to get to and from summer school—if he has the money.
“Like yesterday I had to walk all the way home,” said Fierro. That’s a 4.5-mile hike, from Augusta and Milwaukee to Fullerton and Kostner.
School staff at Noble Street say they’ve “easily” spent 10 hours on the phone over the last two weeks trying to get reduced fares for summer school students— “calling back and forth to Ventra, being sent to CTA, the CTA saying, ‘Go back to Ventra.’ It seems to be a very confusing time for the companies as well as the schools,” said Noble Street administrative assistant Nicole Baily.
And thousands of youth involved in one of the city’s largest summer job programs—After School Matters—have also been paying full fares.
Student Ventra cards, which are available only through schools or by mail from Ventra, offer kids reduced fares Monday through Friday during daytime hours —but only for the regular school year.
CTA spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis says that’s because reduced fares are for students enrolled in an educational program, not for all youth. “If you're enrolled in the regular fall term, once that term finishes, the entitlement on the Ventra card is turned off automatically,” said Lukidis.
For students to get reduced fares during summer, schools must submit each student's individual transit card ID number to the CTA (or to one of Ventra's subcontractors). Lukidis says the transit agency has been working since spring with schools to prepare for the summer session. She says 5,500 Chicago Public Schools students and 9,500 students from charters and private schools are already receiving the reduced fare.
“So we have mechanisms in place for this to work successfully, and it has,” says Lukidis. She blamed Noble Street's problems on a "miscommunication on how to activate and get all of those entitlements processed."
A clerk at one of the city’s neighborhood high schools says not all summer school students there are getting the reduced-fare rides to school and they're entitled to them. “I’ve had parents call to complain,” said the clerk, who didn’t have authorization to speak to the media. She said she’s unable to sell Ventra cards to summer school students who aren’t enrolled at that school during the regular school year.
And the CTA seems to have been blind-sided by summer programs beyond schools. In the past, many summer programs—including After School Matters—purchased and distributed reduced-fare CTA cards to teens. Those cards were valid during the summer months only.
“It seems like a very easy-to-solve problem, but the CTA has not created a student fare card for the summer,” says Brian Brady, director of the Mikva Challenge youth organization.
Brady says nonprofits like his, who run summer programs for youth, are “up in arms on this, but not getting anywhere. It seems like Ventra and CTA are much more impenetrable than they were before the Ventra system took over. We’re having trouble making any headway.”
Brady says the Mikva Challenge, which pays for students’ transportation to its summer civics programs, is shelling out $4,000 more in student transit fares than last summer—and has no choice but to pay full fare for students it believes are entitled to youth fares. Other programs, like After School Matters, have passed the costs on to students.
Brady says that for students paying their own way to summer programs, full fares are “a significant expense for these kids. A lot of them are extremely low-income.” He says even if students are traveling to jobs programs, “these jobs are often stipend-type jobs.” Brady says nearly 20 percent of teens’ earnings could be going to the CTA.
“It’s in the city’s interest to see these kids getting to and from good activities in the summer—constructive activities—so to have them get socked at this heavy rate is really frustrating,” says Brady.
Coincidentally, teens involved in a Mikva Challenge youth committee successfully advocated for the city to offer free rides—rather than reduced fares— to youth travelling to and from school—as a way to improve attendance. The city piloted the program in 10 schools last school year.
CTA says it has been in discussions with directors from After School Matters and plans to give reduced fares to those students “soon. ” But Lukidis could not say how reduced fares would work, when they might begin, or whether students would be reimbursed for overpaying fares. Some After School Matters programs have been up and running for two weeks. Others begin Monday.
A spokeswoman for After School Matters, which has close ties to the city, declined to comment. The group says 8,000 students are enrolled in summer programs.
As for other summer programs run by nonprofits or universities, “the best thing for programs to do, is reach out to us,” said Lukidis, who emphasized the programs must be educational for students to get the reduced fare. “There’s so many good programs throughout the city. If you feel like you have a program that would qualify, and you’re offering something to student-aged kids, contact us, so we can go ahead and review it.”
Linda Lutton is a WBEZ education reporter. Follow her @WBEZeducation.