UPDATED: Protest against Ventra shakes up CTA meeting

[Editor’s note: Updated at 5:20 p.m. CST]

If any member of the CTA’s Board of Directors anticipated a calm, run-of-the-mill budgetary meeting on Tuesday night, they were in for quite a surprise. Dozens of people with various affiliations gathered in the lobby of CTA Headquarters at 567 W. Lake St. Tuesday night, picket signs in tow, to voice their dissatisfaction with Ventra, the CTA’s new payment system that has gotten off to a rough start since launching this summer. Complaints were not limited to the widespread technical difficulties that have plagued the system, but also focused on the distrust of Ventra’s operator, Cubic Corporation.

“I don’t think public service should be privatized because by nature they are more focused on profit, and the consumer of the services doesn’t get a choice,” Megan Groves, one of the protesters and speaker at the hearing, said. “It’s not like we can take the other CTA.”

This was a common thread throughout the hearing, a dissatisfaction with the rollout of Ventra, combined with skepticism at the corporate interests at play.  In her statement to the board, Groves brought up the ongoing debacle with the privatization of the city’s parking meters, as well as the recent closing of numerous CPS schools.

“I will not stand idly by while my city is sold out, brick by brick,” Groves said. This was met with cheers from the crowd, much to the frustration of the stenographer trying to transcribe the proceedings.

Groves was among the more composed of the speakers at the hearing, where tempers flared and applause broke out multiple times.  One disgruntled rider, Jesus Campuzano, recounted his troubles involving not only his Ventra card, but CTA employees in general.  After his card refused to swipe multiple times, Campuzano, a man with an unspecified mental disability, requested assistance from a CTA employee on hand at the station, who he said was very inconsiderate and allegedly told him “I don’t give a f— about people with disabilities.”

“It’s bulls—, it’s f—— bull—-,” Campuzano said before the board, and was met with more disgust from the audience.  What followed was at least a minute of something near chaos, as chairman Terry Peterson chided Campuzano for using profanity.

“Profanity is really not necessary, there are women in the room,” Peterson said, a remark some took as sexist, igniting even more jeering from the crowd.

One after another, CTA users approached the podium and were not afraid to make colorful remarks in front of the distinguished politicians that made up the board.  One speaker chided CTA president Forrest Claypool, who alleged that no service cuts had been made in the past year, when in fact numerous “service adjustments” involving partial removal of bus routes or changes in service hours had taken effect.

“We don’t like you, Forrest,” the speaker said. “You need to resign.”

The meeting was a chance for CTA customers and community members to voice their concerns and frustrations, so beyond the comment by Chairman Peterson, the board members did not respond to any of the speakers.  CTA media relations representative Lambrini Lukidis was contacted to provide explanation or clarification regarding some of the most common complaints raised to the board.  Overall, she intuited that Ventra’s opponents may not have all the facts straight.

“We are not privatizing the fare system, but we are remaining in control of both Ventra and the magnetic and Chicago Card payment systems and shifting the maintenance of these machines,” Lukidis said.  “This will save the CTA $5 million per year, roughly what is spent to maintain the 20-year-old magnetic card payment system.”

As far as allegations that Cubic or the CTA might share customers’ personal data with advertisers or the government, Lukidis saw something of an overreaction.

“The user information is nothing more than you would be asked for to sign up for Netflix or any other website or service,” she said.  “If customers are concerned about privacy, they can pay the five dollar card fee.”

In regards to comments made about the conduct of CTA workers, Lukidis said she could not comment on specific incidents, but advised anyone with concerns to contact the CTA.

“We pride ourselves on providing a quality customer experience,” she said.  “If anyone has problems, we encourage them to contact CTA customer service.  We are always looking to improve the experience of our customers.”