Emanuel vows to hold Ventra contractor’s ‘feet to the fire’ for roll-out debacle

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried Wednesday to get on the right side of a controversy with heavy potential for political fall-out: the disastrous roll-out of the CTA’s new Ventra fare payment system.

One day after his handpicked CTA president suspended all deadlines for the troubled switch, Emanuel praised Forrest Claypool for holding a contractor’s feet to the fire. Claypool has said he won’t pay Cubic Transportation Systems a dime until it meets three new benchmarks: 99 percent of calls to Ventra must be answered in no more than five minutes, 99 percent of vending machines and readers must work, and 99 percent of payment taps on readers must register in no more than in 2.5 seconds.

“I am pleased at the work that Forrest is doing at the CTA modernizing the system …I am equally pleased with the way Forrest is holding Cubic accountable. They will not get a check until this works to the satisfaction of the customers,” the mayor said. “They don’t get paid until it’s working like it’s supposed to work. And I’m pleased that Forrest Claypool is holding their feet to the fire and holding them accountable to deliver because we are in the business of, what I call, customer service. And Cubic has not done their job yet.”

The Ventra debacle has the potential to become for Emanuel what the Affordable Care Act website has been to his former boss, President Barack Obama: a political albatross.

There have been a barrage of complaints about excessive hold times at Ventra call centers and electronic fare readers that don’t seem to register Ventra payments —or take excessively long to do so. The readers have to call up account information before registering a payment, and some CTA employees have incorrectly interpreted that time lag as a malfunctioning machine and waived customers through without paying, Claypool has said.

On Wednesday, Emanuel was asked how the much-ballyhooed transition turned into “such a debacle” when the CTA and Cubic were “not exactly re-inventing the wheel” with the new Ventra system.

“You can use whatever word you want. First of all, 55 percent of the people are using it,” the mayor said. “But, the fact is, it’s not working the way it needs to work. And they won’t get paid until it does do that. And that means holding them accountable and making sure their feet are being held to the fire, which is exactly what Forrest is doing.”

During a speech to the City Club of Chicago this week, Claypool summoned a top Cubic executive to the podium and appeared to use Richard Wunderle as a political foil. The CTA President later said the Ventra problem that made him angriest was the long hold times faced by CTA riders who called the Ventra customer service center.

“The biggest self-inflicted wound here was the low-tech issue —the call center …I was very upset about that,” Claypool said.

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