The Regional Transportation Authority has been forced to replace more than 10,000 damaged or malfunctioning reduced-fare permits issued to senior citizens since the summer, transit officials said Tuesday.
The situation has left thousands of seniors temporarily without transit cards as they wade through the RTA bureaucracy and then wait to receive new permits and reimbursements for money that was stored on their failed cards.
Meanwhile, the RTA has spent about $23,600, or $2.35 per permit, to replace the bad cards that are only four months old or less, officials said. Damaged cards are replaced free of charge, while the RTA charges $5 to replace lost or stolen cards.
The problem follows a messy transition over the summer from free-ride RTA permits for people 65 and older riding the CTA, Metra and Pace, to a reduced-fare permit that took effect Sept. 1. for most seniors. Low-income seniors can still ride for free under a program originally introduced by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich four years ago.
The new RTA reduced-fare permits, which are made of flexible plastic that if scratched or bent can result in damage to the magnetic strips that store how much money is on the cards, were distributed to more than 358,000 seniors, according to the RTA.
RTA officials said they have had to replace 3 percent of the cards. Seniors who have faulty cards can call the RTA at 312-913-3110 or go to the RTA customer service center at 165 N. Jefferson St., Chicago.
Barbara Ginsberg, a retired teacher and librarian who lives in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, received her RTA reduced-fare permit in November and she kept it inside a transit card holder to protect it from possible damage. Despite her careful handling, the permit, which Ginsberg loaded with more than $90, failed in early January when she boarded a CTA bus and placed the card in a farebox reader, she said. The reader said the card was “invalid.’’
Before her retirement, Ginsberg used a CTA Chicago Card Plus card, which is made of sturdier plastic like a credit card and contains a memory chip instead of the magnetic strip that’s on the flimsy RTA senior permit. She never had a problem with her Chicago Card Plus card and she wishes the RTA had gone with similar technology on its senior permit, Ginsberg said.
The new RTA permits have been widely unpopular with many seniors who have contacted the Tribune. Some said the permits are difficult for older eyes and hands to guide into bus fareboxes and train turnstiles. Many said they would have preferred receiving a more durable smart transit card, like the Chicago Card.
RTA officials said issuing “smart cards’’ to seniors would have been too expensive. They also cited a move, still at least two years away, to an open fare-payment system in which credit cards, new types of fare media and eventually cell phones will be used to ride buses and trains.
“We would love to give everybody a smart card,’’ RTA spokeswoman Diane Palmer said. “But smart cards were not an option to serve the 350,000-plus seniors due to (inadequate) inventory.’’
But many seniors who live on fixed incomes don’t see wasting money as an option, either.
“Replacing all these damaged cards is costing the RTA money,’’ Ginsberg said. “It’s a bad decision on their part and a false economy because they have to spend twice as much.’’
The CTA has received 1,365 complaints about the RTA senior reduced-fare permits between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, said CTA spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis. The CTA received 143 complaints about its own reduced fare cards, she said.
Lukidis said the magnetic strip cards “inevitably become worn. This is one of the many reasons why CTA is already moving forward with an open fare system.”
Ginsberg is still waiting for the money she lost on her damaged card. She received a new RTA permit in the mail, but it had no money on it. She is now dealing with both the RTA and the CTA to get her $77.50 refund, she said. She was told the CTA will send her CTA reduced-fare transit cards preloaded with $8.50 on each card.
“I have been inconvenienced because it is going on three weeks and I am waiting for the CTA to send me the balance,’’ said Ginsberg, who is using her RTA permit to pay the reduced-fare in cash in the meantime. But she is paying $1 for each ride, instead of the 85-cent reduced fare with a fare card, and also missing out on the opportunity to use a transit card to pay the reduced-fare 15-cent transfer.
RTA replaces thousands of reduced-fare cards
RTA forced to replace thousands of reduced-fare cards (January 24, 2012)