King County Metro’s Low Income Fare Options Advisory Committee has now issued its report and recommendations.

A general fare restructure proposal that may include some action on these recommendations is expected to go the county council in the next couple months.

At a recent forum sponsored by the Transportation Choices Coalition, a couple of committee members – Kate Joncas of the Downtown Seattle Association, and Alison Eisinger from the Seattle Coalition on Homelessness – were joined by Metro project director Doug Hodson to discuss the recommendations.

The recommendations, some of the discussion from the panel, and analysis, are below the fold.

Here are the recommendations of the Low-Income Fare Options Advisory Committee:

  1. A low-income fare program should be created.
  2. All fare categories, and the policy bases for them, should be evaluated in an effort to rationalize the fare structure and ensure greater equity.
  3. The Human Services ticket program should be maintained due to its important role in providing mobility for the homeless and those with no income through distribution of free tickets.
  4. A low-income fare program should minimize the burden on Metro, other agencies, and the people served.
    1. Rather than create a new entity, existing eligibility verification systems run by third-party agency partners that determine eligibility for existing benefit programs should be leveraged.
    2. An option to verify eligibility based on income should be made available for those not enrolled in other benefit programs and explored with agencies that already verify income or that would be willing to provide this service.
  5. Multiple funding sources should be evaluated to offset the financial impacts of a low-income fare program, including revising the existing fare box structure and other revenue sources.
  6. A low-income fare program should be considered as a beneficiary if the County has new increased revenue.
  7. This report should be transmitted to the heads of the agencies included in the ORCA Joint Board.
  8. King County and Sound Transit should coordinate on the implementation of a low-income fare when it is approved.

The panelists said the committee rejected the idea of using increased farebox revenue as a funding source. However, reading these recommendations, it appears more accurate to say the committee declined to specifically recommend using increased farebox revenue as a funding source, even though recommendations 5 and 6 point heavily toward doing just that.

Kitsap Transit Orca Card
Orca Card for Kitsap Transit

One of the audience members brought up the question of whether Kitsap Transit’s low-income ORCA is honored by other agencies, including by paying the difference in fares in cash. The panelists were under the impression that this card is honored at its presumed face value ($1) and can be used on other services to get a $1 cash discount on fares. However, I called Kitsap Transit Customer Service and confirmed that (1) the card looks just like a regular blue ORCA; (2) that it is not honored by Kitsap Transit to pay the reduced fare with cash; and (3) that no other agency honors the low-income card feature, either for an electronic fare discount, nor for a cash fare discount. See the graphic at right, from page 35 of the appendices to the report.

I asked whether the committee had considered the question of requiring ORCA product to access the low-income fare, or allow such an ORCA to allow the holder to pay the reduced fare with cash. The two panelists who were LIFOAC committee members said they didn’t expect there to be special branding, but did expect it to allow holders to pay the reduced fare with cash, and that doing so enabled a more private and dignified fare process.

So, if Metro goes with the normal-looking pass that just happens to be programmed for the reduced fare, how would drivers know it is a reduced-fare card, so that they could accept the reduced cash fare? For the sake of dignity and privacy, hopefully they wouldn’t. That would mean no loaded product, no reduced fare.

For those of you who might say this defeats the point of the low-income fare option, I must point out: The low-income fare is for frequent riders who can’t afford to budget for a full fare over the long term. But getting caught once or twice without loaded ORCA product is going to get qualifying riders in the habit of loading up their card. It is not as if they are being denied service. So, this occasional hit isn’t a big deal, when we are not talking about no-income riders. But using this opportunity to bribe a quarter to a third of the ridership to use ORCA product would be a very big deal to all riders, who would notice and be grateful for the improved travel time, whether or not they qualify for the discount.

An audience member asked if the committee had considered letting human service agencies loan out ORCA cards with some loaded e-purse to their no-income clients. They had not. I haven’t heard of this approach before, so I’m wondering what others think.

In previous drafts there was a word “administrative” in the main sentence of what is now recommendation 4. Now, it can be interpreted to include operational burden. I’d submit that having lots of low-income riders fumbling cash, when they could have been coaxed into using ORCA product, may be a larger burden on Metro than the personnel cost of giving out the low-income cards and discounted fare product.

27 Replies to “LIFOAC Issues Recommendations, Unwittingly Supports ORCAzation”

  1. If you have an ORCA then there is no need for a special fare.

    Subsidies and charity would simply fill the person’s card and he would pay regular fare.

    They could limit the amount per person given. Anything on top of that the person would pay out of pocket.

    It would be mandatory to use ORCA. No card, no subsidy, no free ride.

    (I was recently surprised how easy it is to get an ORCA card, when I was stuck without mine at Kent Station and was glad to be able to use the 24 hour Sounder ticket machine to get one…at an exorbitant $5.)

    1. I agree, the simplest plan would be to have a program where one could have a $0.50 or $1 or whatever amount chosen loaded as a PugetPass onto their Orca. It could be set to reoccur for a certain amount of months if you don’t want people to have to reapply every month. The Orca cards could also be given away to eligible people. Social service agencies could add more passes to it if they want. No need to create complicated new systems. And, you get more Orca usage, less cash, fewer delays, less bus idling.

      1. Unfortunately, ORCA isn’t set up to allow pass upgrades. Once you’ve loaded a $2.25 pass (for $81) for a given month, you can’t then pay an additional $27 to upgrade that month’s pass to the $3 level.

  2. It’s good to see progress on this front – here’s hoping the county council approves a sensible adjustment to the fare rules soon.

    That said, I’m disappointed that more emphasis wasn’t given to using ORCA – doing so would save the agencies money, reduce the burden for staff administration over a ticket-based program, and help prevent any shame or social burden for those using the program.

    There’s no good reason ORCA cards can’t be given away, or at least sold at-cost, with a special flag set to indicate it’s a low-fare card – similar to how Youth or RRFP cards work. The customer could load it with cash at any TVM or the expanding network of retailers that can load up a card.

    In regards to the ticket program: I can see the use of one-time paper tickets for social service agencies. At the same time, they are often abused by riders, and create yet-another-payment-method for drivers and Fare Enforcement to learn and deal with.

    To me, this is the perfect situation for paper-based ORCA cards, a technology that exists and can be used but has never been deployed in the Puget Sound region. Provide social service agencies with an USB ORCA reader, and the software to load a paper ticket with the needed ride-vouchers, and you’re done. The tickets can only be used once (or for however many rides are loaded on to them), and once they expire they customer has to return to the agency to get more. The tickets are also very inexpensive, compared to a regular card.

    While we’re at it, lets introduce a proper day pass that uses said paper tickets.

  3. This is made so much more complicated just because of the fact that the card is $5 in the first place. There shouldn’t be any talk about “bribing” people to use ORCA. People should want to use it, because it’s 500000000x more convenient. When I moved back here and I didn’t have a pass for 3 or 4 days, I made sure to go buy a regular e-purse ORCA because I frigging hate carrying cash and making sure I had change.

    This is really just one example when people like d.p. talk about the death by 1000 cuts when using public transit in the area.

  4. Thanks for the great writeup, Brent.

    I just don’t understand the resistance to using ORCA as an integral part of this process. It’s easier for the farepayer and the system alike. It’s as if agency personnel and activists are assuming that the current $5 cost of an ORCA was passed down from God on stone tablets, and there is no way to work around it.

    If we can’t do away with cash payment entirely, there needs to be one single cash fare, and all complexities — reduced youth, senior, disability, or low-income fares, transfers, and the like — must be handled entirely through ORCA.

    I’d think that anyone who has ever watched 15 ORCA holders board in less time than it takes to pay one cash fare would agree with me.

    1. Or, 15 ORCA holders held up by one cash payer fumbling for change and asking questions they could answer themselves using the map at the stop, 5 feet away.

    2. Agree totally. ORCA needs to be the clear preferred way to pay. The current obstacles are, in rough order of importance: difficulty of refill, cost of the card, and privacy concerns.

      While we’re at it, can we look at putting photo ID onto all reduced rate ORCAs to help root out fraud?

    3. … and time is money. To drive the point home, somebody should make a video with people fumbling for cash or doing the Tap/Ask for a group fare/Tap to undo the tap/set the proper group fare/Tap routine that usually occurs when people ask for a group fare. At the bottom would be a counter showing how much time is passing. Instead of time, the “clock” would consist of money being burned at the rate of $138 per hour (the total cost to put an average bus on the road, last time I checked).

      1. Usually if I have somebody from out of town with me I’ll ask for a group fare *before* tapping… Same thing if I am riding a 574 from Lakewood to Tacoma Dome, I ask for the thing to be set to the in-county fare before I tap.

  5. Question: While ORCA is enormously more convenient for us to use, it’s still administered by a third-party….how hard would it be for them to implement a change like this? Best laid plans, and such…

    1. I honestly don’t know how much it would trouble Vix Technologies, the ORCA vendor, to add additional features. I would expect they would charge for “developing” any new feature, even if they already have it developed. It would be a change order in the contract. Also, Cubic has a larger market share in the smart card industry and may very well have patents on their features that Vix didn’t develop first.

      That said, the low-income fare option doesn’t necessarily require any new features. If the Kitsap model is copied, then Metro simply takes advantage of the same features used in that program. The card has a marker indicating to use the low-income rate when interacting with Kitsap Transit readers, and a built-in expiration date. After the expiration date, the card reverts to using the full adult rate. So, in order to continue getting the low-income fare, the recipient has to get a new card. There may also be issues with how each agency would honor each others’ low-income rates, but assumedly they have ironed out such issues with the RRFPs.

      Another approach is to just sell full adult passes on regular cards at a discount, but that may require the recipient to make a trip to the pass sales office monthly.

  6. “… how would drivers know it is a reduced-fare card, so that they could accept the reduced cash fare? For the sake of dignity and privacy, hopefully they wouldn’t. That would mean no loaded product, no reduced fare.”

    The current Metro Low Income ticket program, with orange flash passes, are the only flash passes left that I am aware of. Ignoring the obvious fraud and abuse issues with those passes, showing one of these automatically brands the passenger as “low income”. Ideally, income status should be kept between the ORCA pass holder and Metro/ST/The Income verifying body, and possibly fare enforcement officers if they have the ability to check ID. Dignity for the low income passenger / incentive to keep their account loaded and the buses moving.

  7. Were coming at this entirely from the wrong end. Any “solution” that significantly boosts costs (and public subsidies) without also significantly boosting revenues will simply not fly.

    A better approach would be akin to London’s OWL system, which caps individual transit costs depending on the mix of single- vs. multiple-zone travel, with a lower cap for single-zone/central city travel, but a higher cap for multiple-zone/commuter travel. A virtue of this approach is that you no longer need to purchase a monthly pass upfront, the cost can be a bar to lower-income frequent riders, but receive it automatically.

    Another plus is that fares can be set at whole dollar amounts, eliminating change processing, while charging a higher fare to infrequent riders, tourists, etc. While individual fares would initially be higher, they would need to be raised less frequently – meeting revenue targets could be done by raising the caps, instead of the fares. When fares do need to be bumped up, the caps could be adjusted downward to keep overall costs under control.

    Since everyone would in effect have a monthly pass, there would be a large incentive to avail oneself of it, by exceeding the cap-level, beyond which travel would be free, leading to maximizing usage and revenues. Like with current monthly passes, there could be separate caps for single-zone/multi-zones and non-peak/peak travel times.

    1. I vaguely recall that Metro would not be able to do this without infringing on somebody’s patent…

      1. San Jose VTA and most transit systems in Australia do this kind of fare capping on a daily basis – it shouldn’t be that hard to extend it for a duration.

      2. Those patents are invalid for obviousness and preemption, as well as for lack of enablement. I hope the APTA case manages to get rid of them.

    2. I’m not entirely sure that Oyster is easily transferable. Bus fares are non-zonal, only rail fares are zonal. For the latter, just as on Link, you have to tap in and out.

      The cash fare is #2.40, while the Oyster fare is #1.40. There are no transfers: if you change buses, you pay two fares. The bus only daily cap is #4.40 [but, of course, you only get that if you are using Oyster] That said, drivers will try to make change for you if you pay with small denominations.

      Would Metro be willing to get rid of the peak surcharge on suburban riders? How about ST and cross county riders? Would all the agencies be willing to put card readers on all doors?

      Also note that their zonal system is designed primarily to discourage travel in the morning peak and travel to, from, or through Central London. Charging by distance is only a secondary goal. But then, even their sprawl is pretty dense by our standards, and the problems they have with overcrowding make my complaints about crush loaded 550’s sound risible.

  8. It would be nice if you could receive an ORCA card with a set amount of epurse value every 3-6 months or so at a local food bank. That way, low income people who qualify for the food bank can get low income subsidized transportation. It would also help the issue of people who think about dropping their work level below the threshold in order to get the low income discount, because they would have to show their face in a food bank in order to get the discount.

  9. The fare structure needs to be re-evaluated as well, not just low income/disabled fares and policy. ORCA is a powerful system, however in recent observations, it requires an act of congress to get some operators to change the fare set for in-county instead of out-of-county. Not only do you have to ask the operator, it takes several key presses on the DDU(?), and the machine resetting itself to change the fare set. Fare structure should be set to type of service, Local routes one fare, in-county Express routes another, and maybe even ST Express routes yet another flat fare. ORCA seems to work best with flat fares without any zone compilations. Furthermore, the tickets should be abolished. I’m sure for a fee VIX could reprogram orca to have a ticket system implemented on the ORCA card, or even give out complementary e-purse value. Either or would help reduce fraud and waste on the system. And Finally, Paper transfers should be eliminated. With the caveat that more TVMs are installed at Transit Center’s and P&R lots for riders to care for their ORCA card. Theres no reason why any major transit station/hub should be without a machine to refill or purchase an ORCA card.

    1. I don’t think that fare structure should be a concern if we had orca readers at all doors and implemented a tap on/off system with the occasional fare enforcement officer. To further deter fare evasion, implement some sort of facial recognition system to analyze and predict when to check fares.

      Paper transfers don’t get to me, but cash payers fishing change out of their pocket do. Some drivers wait while an entire bus of people anxiously wait to get back home. sigh

      Also, low income fares should only be available with ORCA along with other incentives for all riders to avoid cash. Holding up 60+ people on a crowded bus should be declared a crime against humanity (or at least the 60+ people waiting there)

  10. To eliminate the problem of not having machines to load fare, you can place addfare machines on buses. This is what Houston does. It is small enough where, if placed correctly, it will not have to take up a seat. Then, you could incentivize ORCA fare payment by adding a $1-2 surcharge to each cash fare, and give the rider a limited use ORCA card to avoid paying the surcharge in the future – which they could then load, with cash, in the back of the bus.

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