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Help Squad: CTA glitch results in bus rider walking to work in 25 below

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Send your letters, your complaints, your injustices and your story ideas to HelpSquad@pioneerlocal.com and we will be happy to help you.

Jerry Helland of Genoa wrote an e-mail to his daughter, Lisa Hammer of Glenview, and she alerted Help Squad, stating that he wanted the following story to be told, not for any financial gain, but so that it didn’t happen to anyone else.

The morning of Jan. 7 was one of the coldest Chicago mornings in history, with the wind chill factor making it feel like 25 below zero.

Although no day is a good day for a bus pass to malfunction, this particular day was the worst possible day it could have happened.

Helland is a government employee who has been taking the Metra from Elgin, followed by a bus from Union Station to his Loop office every morning for several years. He said he has never had any problem with his Ventra pass until the day Chicago was being called Chiberia.

That morning, with the card on which he had just put $20 via his computer, Helland was told by the CTA bus driver on his 151 bus route that the card had a zero balance.

Helland told Help Squad that the driver told him there were “no more free rides.” Not wanting to create a situation and fearing he could get arrested, the 70-year-old man (who recently had back surgery) got off the bus and walked to work.

 

Dear Mr. Helland,

First of all, we’re sorry that you had to trek to work in sub zero temperatures. That couldn’t have been fun. We’re also sorry that the CTA driver appears to have been so cold.

Upon hearing your story, we contacted the CTA and spoke with media representative, Lambrini Lukidis. After promising to attempt to find out who the driver was, as well as explaining that this is the first incident in recent weeks she’s heard about regarding a problem with a Ventra card, Lukidis issued this statement:

“As a matter of procedure, bus operators are required to ask for fares at all times, and drivers are further instructed not to engage in fare disputes with customers. In this instance, the driver did ask for a fare but did not tell the customer to get off of the bus based on customer’s version of events. The customer exited the vehicle on his own. Given the temperatures on Tuesday, it would have been OK for the customer to remain on the bus.”

 

Helland’s response: “I may not have been physically kicked off the bus but the CTA policy is wrong. When a Ventra card does not work properly, the passenger should be given benefit of doubt ... it was 25 below zero. It appears the Ventra system continues to have problems and the CTA needs to appreciate it has a continuing problem.”

Helland did contact Ventra. A representative told him that his account did, in fact, show a $20 balance, but that they had to “push it through.” Helland asked what that meant and if there was anything he could have done to prevent his account from malfunctioning. The representative didn’t really have an answer.

Help Squad did attempt to reach Ventra to find out what might have happened and if the company had any advice for other CTA riders who might experience this glitch. We left Ventra three messages and never heard back.

The CTA did end up crediting Helland $1 for the ride he missed. Lukidis issued this statement, as well.

“The CTA is also in the process of upgrading Ventra readers to provide more information right on the reader to customers when a transaction doesn’t go through to better assist them. This includes letting them know when their balance has insufficient fare.”

Our conclusion is that the CTA driver didn’t technically do anything wrong, and that Helland’s story seems to be an isolated incident, but come on. Seriously? We’re talking about a 70-year-old man in negative 25 degree weather. Why wouldn’t the driver take Helland’s word for it, especially with Ventra’s history of system malfunctions? The whole thing sounds a little icy.

Read More Local Voices

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Send your letters, your complaints, your injustices and your story ideas to HelpSquad@pioneerlocal.com and we will be happy to help you.

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