The Sound Transit Board of Directors is scheduled to take action on systemwide fare changes next month, raising all non-free fares $0.25, and creating a low-income fare, matching the youth fare.

However, the fare-revenue projections in the recently-released 2015 Draft Service Implementation Plan show a dip in fare revenue next year, even with the increase. (p.103)

The resulting ST Express fares, if the proposal goes through, would be $2.75 for 1-county trips and $3.75 for multi-county trips. It would be a simple matter to raise the cash fare to an even $3 for 1-county trips and $4 for multi-county trips. If it helps push riders to pay by tapping ORCA, then that would be wonderful for the rest of the riders already doing their part. If riders insist on paying with cash, at least most of them would be just shoving in dollar bills, instead of fishing for bills, then fishing for change.

If these fares seem high, consider that they are still less than or equal to what Community Transit is charging for its express routes, in all payer categories.

Charging more for cash fares than ORCA fares is not taboo. King County Ferries has been doing it for years. The low-income fare is ORCA-product-only, which means a de facto cash surcharge for low-income riders of $1.25 on 1-county ST Express trips and $1 on multi-county ST Express trips, if the Board approves staff’s fare proposal.

Given that most ST Express riders are already using ORCA, the reaction to tacking on an extra 25-cent cash surcharge for regular-fare payers would likely be something like this:

Okay, Sound Transit wouldn’t actually be banning the nuisance of cash fumbling, but hopefully the effect of a 25-cent cash surcharge would be almost as good, and not leave anyone stranded if they lose their ORCA card.

49 Replies to “$3/$4 ST Express Cash Fares? Sound Transit Could Use the Extra Revenue”

  1. Haven’t we had this discussion before about how ORCA cards should get a discount rather than cash fares having a surcharge? Same effect but better marketing.

    People are trained to look for coupons and discounts. Imagine if you went to the grocery store and your frozen pizza had a surcharge if you forgot to grab the coupon next to it.

    1. 5 cent bag fee, anyone? That seems to work out just fine.

      Besides, I don’t see the “club price” as a discount. That’s the real price; the “regular price” is the penalty for forgetting your club card or refusing to hand over your personal information to obtain one.

      1. Exactly. You have the right to remain anonymous and untracked when you shop for groceries, but you’ll pay a hefty surcharge for the privilege. I really wish we weren’t heading in that direction for transit as well. Already if you wish to purchase a monthly pass or utilize employer transit benefits, you have to use the Orca card, which records exactly which buses you rode and when, and stores this information indefinitely.

        I prefer not to have my travels recorded, but not so much that I’ll pay more for the privilege…just like in the grocery store. However, why can’t we have the best of both worlds? There’s no need for the Orca database to store trip-level details until the end of time. I can see a need to store the information for perhaps a month or two for customer service purposes. After that the card numbers should be stripped from the records

      2. Eric – As I understand it, the data is not stored indefinitely. Anything beyond 90 days is just stats, not records. None of the time/date/location info is linked to your account and it can’t be used to track your movements.
        As a route planner, I’ve tried to analyze transfers and the best I can get from Orca is route to route. It won’t even tell me time of day or route direction, so I know x number of transfers happen from the 105 to the 201 but not whether they were NB to NB or NB to SB, AM or PM, etc…
        Sometimes less is not more, it’s just less. Want better planning? We need better data. I don’t care about your travels.

      3. Nothing requires you to tell the truth on a club card application. You could make up a name and fake address like the address of a sports stadium.

    2. “Club prices” are what the sale prices used to be, and still are at places that don’t have club cards.

      1. No, club prices and sale prices are different, and exist simultaneously.

        A club price is the price at which an item is regularly offered for those who have a club membership. It’s not time-limited.

        You can still use a coupon on an item for which you paid the club price. You can still get bulk discounts on a club-priced item. And sometimes they’ll even lower the club price as part of a sale.

      2. “Club cards” in the sense of supermarket loyalty cards, not membership cards like Costco or the co-ops. The card-only discounts at loyalty-card stores are the same as sales at non-loyalty-card stores.

        As for Whole Foods, you have to compare identical items, so organic with organic. Whole Foods is often cheaper than supermarkets’ “organic/natural” section, especially its no-frills store brand “365”.

      3. Supermarkets (non-membership-required-to-shop Costco model) are required to offer the lowest advertised price to any customer who requests it. You can therefore ask to swipe a “store card” every time. An employee who battles you over this is in violation of the law.

        You can still obtain and use a non-registered ORCA card in perpetuity. The anonymity is similar but not as total as swiping a “store card”, because it still needs to be yours.

      4. Actually I was kidding in regards to Whole Foods – as I think the store is great. Not a fan of those clubs. Yes I know Costco is based near Seattle.

      5. The unregistered Orca card is not really an answer for those who want to travel without being tracked. Just like with a registered Orca card, each trip is recorded, and this record is stored indefinitely. The record is still tied to the card number, which can be tied back to the person using the card if the card ever falls into the hands of someone who wants to look at the history.

        In fact, the unregistered card is worse in some ways than the registered card because the owner of the registered card has already set up a user name and password to protect the data from anyone other than government investigators or others who are allowed to go through official channels to get the information. With the unregistered card, literally anyone who gets momentary access to the card can get the card number and register that card themselves to look up past trips.

        Privacy isn’t something that should only be of concern to criminals who “have something to hide.” This could be exploited by a wallet thief looking up their victim’s travel patterns to figure out the best time to rob their house, or a stalker wanting a good way to track their victim, or someone who suspects their significant other of cheating and wants some proof. There are any number of reasons why a law-abiding citizen might not want a permanent record of their bus trips. It’s a shame that the Orca system, for all of its virtues in enabling easier and faster payments, gets the privacy aspect so wrong.

      6. Are you sure that you can view the entire usage history of a found/stolen ORCA that you have just taken upon yourself to register? And are you also sure that a stalker/thief could register said card without, at the very least, a valid e-mail address that would give their snooping actions a traceable link back to them? The Venn diagram of conditions for abuse of a non-registered card would seem to leave little real-world chance of such abuse occurring.

        That said, I would be perfectly happy to see permanently-recorded ORCA actions (or those displayed in one’s online account at any point in time) limited only to the date, time, and agency (not the route number), and only when the action causes a change in card balance (no record of transfers or of swipes below the active face value).

      7. Eric,

        I understand your point, but there are also upsides to such passenger tracking. In NYC for example there were criminal cases in witch suspects were exonerated as a result of the Metrocard. The data being introduced as evidence was indisputable proof of someones whereabouts.

        Now with that said, I can understand the uncertainty of such tracking with transit cards. But weighing the costs & benefits of the technology, I rather have them than not. Besides what do you think happens every time you swipe your credit or debit card? The card issuers track patterns in spending & if something suddenly looks odd, the card can be frozen & the user contacted for verification.

      8. Having your registered card tapping on certain readers at certain times is not at all proof that the legitimate owner was doing the tapping. It may be a compelling case to jurors unfamiliar with the concept of friends lending each other their transit passes, but it is a wide open door to false alibis, with the collusion of accomplices.

        In particular, someone can carry two cards, so that they can show their legit card if inspected, but tap twice at some readers. Alibi created. Virtually no risk involved, so long as the conspirators trust each other.

      9. It definitely does not stay accessible over 90 days, as I have looked at my card history a few times in trying to figure out where all the money went. There were one or two times the foot ferry operator took quite a while to download the data from the card reader, so the amount available on the card bounced around a bit.

        If a stalker gets close enough to someone to steal an unregistered ORCA card from someone they know, it seems to me they’ve already gotten too close.

        It is far more likely that someone would have picked up a random unregistered card that would have been accidentally dropped, but what bus routes and when doesn’t seem to me that it would be that useful. Route 10 at 6:37 am. OK, so it is known approximately where that bus would be from the timetable. There is still no way to know what the person was doing there or how far away they walked to get to the bus stop.

        I would be far more concerned with the various private companies that can buy and sell your shopping habits to each other, including what over the counter and prescription drugs you may have purchased, than the ORCA card. The freedom of undue search clause in the constitution has a reasonable restraint on government entities. However, private corporations have no such restraints as the USA has no right to privacy clause in its constitution, unlike a number of other countries.

      10. Are you sure that you can view the entire usage history of a found/stolen ORCA that you have just taken upon yourself to register? And are you also sure that a stalker/thief could register said card without, at the very least, a valid e-mail address that would give their snooping actions a traceable link back to them?

        Yes and yes. I created a new account on the Orca website yesterday. The sign-up process requires a bunch of contact info, including email address and street address, but none of this information is verified in any way. There isn’t even a confirmation email. You can input completely bogus contact info and still log into the account. The only real info the server could possibly be recording is an IP address, but this can be trivially thwarted by using any public WiFi.

        After creating the account, I took an Orca card that I had not previously registered and registered it. Once you have an online account, all you need to register a new card is the numbers printed on the front of the card. Lo and behold, the trip history was right there!

        It definitely does not stay accessible over 90 days, as I have looked at my card history a few times in trying to figure out where all the money went.

        This is false. All you have to do is enter a date range more than 90 days old and you can see your history from that time. The interface is much less than perfect, so I can understand how you might not have noticed the place to enter a date range.

      11. That came up blank for me when I attempted to enter a date range older than 90 days.

    1. Ya that was odd because of the wording of the blog post. From my understanding, the projections for lower total revenue from fares is a result of the subsidized low-income fares. Meaning that discount price for low income dips into the funding more than the $0.25 additional cost makes up for it. I’m not sure how this is even an issue worth blogging about. ST just needs to raise the $0.25 or not discount the low-income fares as much as planned.

      Despite that, ST cash fares being higher than Orca and then the transfers only working one way is just confusing. Honestly I think ST knows what they are doing for the most part, with the exception of fares.

      1. I suppose it is worth reminding people that *all* fares are subdized. Some are just subsidized more than others. One could make the claim that low-income riders are still subsidizing senior and disabilities fares, if one ignores that reality.

        And of course, without a differential, ORCA users could be said to be subdizing cash fumblers, but that is a matter of perspective.

  2. Yes, this could help, but not by that much. STExpress has an 83% ORCA use rate, higher than any other mode on any agency except Sounder (93%). Higher cash fares could do much more for Metro (64% ORCA use) or Pierce Transit (43%).

    1. If ST leads on this issue, I bet the other agencies will follow. The county council could use the cover, given their several-year record of fear of fully embracing ORCA.

      1. I suspect it’s a combination of factors. On average Pierce county is less well-off than King County, so riders there are more likely to view the $5.00 barrier to entry as significant. It’s riders are probably also somewhat less technophilic. Perhaps there’s a greater worry about being tracked.

      2. I’d guess it’s more a demographic issue than an availability problem. Pierce County has a decent number of retail and agency ORCA outlets (Lakewood, South Tacoma, Tacoma Dome, 10th/Commerce, and 19 retail outlets), but their ridership is significantly poorer than ST’s. Plus the cash fare is low ($2) and they still sell weekend flash passes for $4.

      3. PT still offers paper transfers, it wont be until December when the new fare structure goes into effect, eliminating paper transfers and going to a single ride/daypass system

        As I have said all long, you need to have a credit or debit card with a good line of credit to be able to tend to ORCA. if you are a cash passenger, or struggle to scrape up the funds to buy your pass it does not work very well. Not to mention that the places where you can load cash onto your ORCA card are still few and far in-between. Once ORCA machines get installed at every transit center, drugstore, and 7-11, etc. in the area It might be time to re-think that, but until than if you don’t have a good line of credit ORCA is not for you.

  3. Why only a quarter? For one county trips in King County, I’d propose $3.25 (to match Metro) with Orca and $5.00 without: [Frankly, I’d really prefer a no Orca, no ride rule] but let’s get there by really punishing cash fumblers. Use the extra revenue to replace lost revenue from lowering the $5.00 cost of entry.

    1. I’d have no problem with a $5 cash fare. But when I lose my ORCA card, and I’m at a bus stop miles from the nearest ORCA vending machine, I’ll be relieved that cash is still an option.

    2. No ORCA, no ride is a great way to leave people stranded. I would prefer a “No ORCA, $20” rule. That way, people will still never use cash, or at least never use it more than once.

      1. How about giving the $20 payer an ORCA card, with $10 or so of e-purse (after counting the route just boarded)?

      2. That’s sort of what Skagit Transit does, only they issue overpayment on a magnetic card that can be used for future trips. The balance on the card is printed on it each time it is run through the farebox.

  4. It’s completely assinine. Let’s just make car driving suburbanites pay their fair share and lower transit fares. Their transportation method and lifestyle is the most inefficient so stop subsidizing it.

    1. If it didn’t threaten the financial viability of transit, I’d have no trouble with lower fares as well. But there still needs to be a differential between the faster method of paying when boarding the bus and the much slower method.

  5. Absolutely right, Eric. For any and all ORCA use, non-disclosure should be the default. Otherwise, the system should have to be the party to ask permission. Bet the Far Right would be with me on this one. Tempted to enlist Dori Monson, but Generva Conventions would send me to the Hague.

    Would like an answer to Sam’s question. Why ARE fares projected to fall off? Also, would personally ask not if increase is fair, but will it work? Part of answer could be question of mine: why can’t ST Express passengers transfer free of charge between buses and LINK trains- of the same agency!?

    And please nobody give me: “Well, they can just buy an ORCA card.”
    If you’re new in town and in a hurry, no you can’t, and shouldn’t have to re: the ORCA charge part, the nuisance part, and the missed plane part.

    In other words, Sam and everybody else: proof positive that company-paid-air-travel echelon ST management takes either cabs or cars to the airport. Make this group ride transit for these trips, and not only might fare projections increase, but travel expenses would be saved.

    And some badly needed experience would become available to help solve problems like dropping ridership.


    The driver really didn’t know, either re: route or re: time. I told the passenger just to follow me- I was headed south on LINK.

  6. Sorry bad editing garbled personal experience example:

    Inbound on the ST 512 just before 8. At 145th, young man boarded, asked the driver if the bus could get him to Greyhound before 8:40. Destination, Spokane. ST driver really didn’t know.

    Since I was headed south on LINK, I told the passenger just to follow me. Easiest inter-modal, inter-provider transfer in the world, literally.
    512 to Westlake, cross sidewalk, stairs to mezzanine, stairway to platform LINK to Stadium. Passenger made his bus with probably 3 minutes to spare.

    However, a couple little problems could have canceled the positive things above- especially making him miss his very-long-headway bus at night:

    1. Even though ST Express and LINK carry same paint-job, passenger would’ve had to buy ticket for a very short train ride- with delay likely costing him a night on the street in Seattle.

    2. Since I did know this, I would gladly have paid his fare on boarding LINK with him…like, where? If he’d been lucky, Fare Inspectors would have let him get off at Stadium to catch his bus. If I’d been lucky, the ticket I would have gladly taken would have spared me a very bad conscience.

    Glad to do help and will do it again if needed- fare-evasion ticket and all. But fix is almost capital-free expense for ST:

    1. Train ST drivers to know connection that easy and important connection. Especially now that Greyhound is no longer a cross-the-street stop from ST Express.

    2. As long as LINK uses paper tickets, use same between buses and trains.

    3. ORCA-only? Let both modes dispense one-ride intermodal card for price of one regional fare.

    4. Issue transit information packets to all out-of-town carriers, from airlines to Greyhound, to accompany every Seattle-bound ticket.

    In other words, in the words I hate most applied to public service:


    1. While I hate the thought of regional umbrella groups, and adding another layer of governmental management to our transit systems, I really think the agencies in the Puget sound area (Everett, Community, King, Pierce, Intercity, Kitsap, and Sound Transit) need to fall under an umbrella group, like PSRC with more powers and purse strings, and they can take over regional things like ORCA, One Bus Away, etc. As part of that, I think a de-facto increase in the local option transit sales tax to .9 with the PSRC disbursing funds to the agencies for various routes and services. in theory then, Pierce Transit’s route 402, 500, 501, etc could be prorated with each county paying for that level of service inside the their own county. Plus also with an arrangement like that cross border services would be more equitable, and hopefully better planning and integration amongst all of the agencies could happen. As a side, i’d also like to see better management and use of P&R capacity which I think needs a more regional approach and shared management (no more his vs. hers facilities)

  7. I don’t know how good of a comparison it is to compare Sound Transit express fares to Community Transit express fares. You pretty much have to take out a second mortgage to get a pass that covers CT express fares. To give you an idea, the adult fare for the N/E commuter trips is the same as the fare for taking the Sounder from Lakewood to Seattle.

    And, being a millennial, I cannot imagine being on an airplane with people smoking. Good move, Northwest. My, how the culture has changed.

    1. I’m not advocating that fares be high, just that cash fares be higher than ORCA fares.

      My point with the Community Transit example is that ST Express routes making the same trips as CT commuter routes will still charge less than the CT routes under staff’s recommendation.

  8. Out of curiosity, does anyone know what the latest stats are for ORCA card group/corporate purchases vs. ORCA card individual card purchases? (In other words, how many ORCAs are paid for by the Acme widget companies of the world on behalf of their employees, and how many of the cards are bought individually by single transit users.)

  9. At least their raising the fares $0.25.

    Talk about cash fumbling…..I take it not too many people on here visited Portland and took TriMet buses during the era of the $1.15 or $1.65 or $1.85 fares?

  10. Can anyone explain why Seattle is still following Industry Worst Practice by charging $5 for an ORCA card? (Best Practice is to charge a $1 refundable deposit, refunded upon surrender of the card.)

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