In 1997, the CTA introduced the stored value "Transit Card". This plastic reusable card had a magnetic stripe, and could be read by new automatic fare collection equipment installed that year. The standard Transit Cards were mostly blue, although some Transit Cards were issued which include advertising, or else to commemorate certain events.
Stored value cards of various types had been used for years on other transit systems, including the Washington DC Metro. But the CTA Transit Card system was sophisticated enough to incorporate transferring, including the costs and time limits of transfers. The Transit Card worked in the same electronic fare collection system originally installed for use with magnetic transfers. The equipment included new turnstiles at rapid transit stations, and card readers attached to the bus fare boxes.
The Transit Card would be available from vending machines at rapid transit stations, and from Currency Exchanges and other locations which had been selling tokens and passes. At the rapid transit stations, riders could buy a new card at any value between minimum fare and $100, or add any amount to an existing card. Increments needed to be in 5 cents, with no pennies accepted. At Currency Exchanges and other sales outlets, new cards were sold, pre-valued at either $10 or $20.
Until 1997, tokens were sold in quantities of 10 for $13.50. With a one way cash fare at $1.50 at the time, 10 tokens offered a total discount of $1.50. But with the introduction of the Transit Card, the price of 10 tokens increased to $15.00, eliminating the discount for tokens and encouraging riders to switch to the new Transit Card. Originally, Transit Cards were priced to include this $1.50 discount for each $13.50 spent. And vending machines were originally programmed to include this discount. But in 1997, the CTA simplified its discount formula to a $1 bonus for each $10 spent. The CTA stopped selling tokens in 1999, instead offering packs of ten Transit Cards for $15.00, as an alternative for those who had preferred individual tokens. With the 2004 fare increase, the price for a pack of ten Transit Cards rose to $17.50. And in 2008, these packs of Transit Cards were discontinued.
At the beginning of 2004, a $1.75 base fare was adopted, with transfers costing 25 cents. Transfers would be valid for a second and a third ride within a 2 hour period, and the Transit Card worked with this transfer policy. The first use of a Transit Card deducted $1.75 from its value. A second use within a 2 hour period deducted 25 cents, the cost of a transfer. And a third use within the 2 hour period deducted nothing.
The Transit Card could even be shared by up to 7 people. If a Transit Card was used again at the same station or on the same bus within a 15 minute period, an additional $1.75 is deducted for an additional passenger. Or 25 cents for each second use with the 2 hour transfer period. This prevented fare cheating, eliminating the possibility of two people riding for just one fare and a transfer.
A Transit Card carried an "expiration date" approximately a year from the original sale date, presumably to insure that the magnetic card is technologically dependable. When one attempted to recharge a Transit Card at a vending machine within 60 days of its expiration date, the machine would in reality issue a new card with the correct value. One needed look at the expiration date to actually realize that a new card had been issued.
The complete Transit Card regulations were posted on CTA trains and buses shortly after adoption.
In addition to paying in cash, Reduced Fare tokens were previously available, which were larger than regular tokens, In 1999, these were replaced with Reduced Fare Transit Cards. In addition, the RTA Reduced Fare Permits and the CTA Student Riding Permits were redesigned with magnetic stripes, enabling them to double as stored value cards which could be "charged" with vending machines. And as the fare collection technology evolved to passes with imbedded chips, these Permits were subsequently redesigned accordingly.
In 2008, legislation was passed in Illinois, requiring all public transportation systems in the state to allow senior citizens to ride for free. In addition, certain low income people with disabilities and military personnel became entitled to a free fare. Although in 2011, the free fare for senior citizens was rescinded, except with low incomes. This free fare was with controversy, as it was a condition under which then governor Rod Blagojevich would sign legislation allowing for a tax increase to support public transportation. In 2009, Blagojevich was removed from office amid various scandals, for which he was convicted in 2011 and sent to prison.
Also in 2004, the CTA introduced the "Chicago Card Plus", also for a $5 fee, with the fee waived in early 2004. But unlike the regular Chicago Card or Transit Card, fare value would be added by automatically charging to a major credit card, when the fare value went below $10. Upon registering the Chicago Card Plus, a recharge value of $10, $20, $40, or $60 could be selected. The Chicago Card Plus could also be registered as a 30 day pass, automatically charging the normal pass cost to a credit card every 30 days.
Also to encourage use of the Chicago Card and the Chicago Card Plus, the CTA discontinued the $1 bonus per $10 with Transit Cards, instead offering the bonus only for the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus. In 2006, the bonus was revised to be $2 for every $20. But in 2009, the bonus was eliminated.
In 2013 and 2014, the Chicago Card was replaced with the new Ventra card, using newer computer technology. The Ventra card would function similar to the Chicago Card, but in addition could be used as a debit card. The Ventra technology was also embraced by Pace, and in 2015 also became available for Metra.