Just a week ago, commenter Ricky alerted STB readers to the fact that the 10-year contract for operating the Seattle Center Monorail was coming up for renewal, and being discussed in the City Council’s Parks, Seattle Center, Libraries, and Gender Pay Equity Committee this past Tuesday. Chad recognized the opportunity, and called upon the city council to integrate the monorail into the ORCA fare system, as part of the contract renewal.

City councilmembers found a barrage of emails waiting for them Monday morning, and swung into action. Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, one of the committee members, had a lot of questions regarding the future of the monorail for Seattle Center staff at the meeting, including plans for a potential expansion of access to the south terminal across 5th Ave to street level.

On the topic of ORCA integration, Rasmussen said he wanted a plan by the end of the first quarter of 2015 on how such integration can occur, and will introduce amendments to the operating contract to make that happen. He added, “We need to have certainty that [the monorail] will be integrated into the ORCA system.”

Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who is not on the committee, made an appearance to ask some pointed questions relating to ORCA integration. He explained the transfer surcharge problem, in which someone who just spent $2.50 on a bus downtown is probably going to choose a free bus transfer to get to the Seattle Center over a ride on the monorail that costs another $2.25.

Committee Chairwoman Jean Godden issued a statement later in the day:

At today’s Committee meeting we took a vote on the legislation authorizing a concession agreement with Seattle Monorail Services. As congestion increases, I support further exploration of how we can better integrate our transit system. I’m intrigued by the amendments Rasmussen is working on related to fare box integration.

Councilmember Rasmussen, who chairs the Council Transportation Committee, had more to say by email later when asked for more specifics:

I would like the ORCA card to be as convenient and universal as possible for the various public transportation modes which includes the Monorail. What I am asking the Seattle Center and the Monorail operator to come back with a plan for the use of the card on the Monorail by the end of the first quarter 2015. What I would expect is that they assess and provide the City Council Transportation Committee with information on what it would take financially and technically for the Monorail to be able to accept the ORCA card in the same manner that all other transit agencies do.

When asked if he would require the monorail to accept PugetPass, UPass, and inter-agency transfers, Rasmussen responded,

I would like the Orca card to be as useful and convenient as possible. The purpose of the three month study period is to understand the challenges and costs of the various options you stated before we give the go ahead. I am working for an integrated, seamless fare system for the region regardless of the public transit agency that is used.

Rasmussen’s proposed amendments to the contract are expected to be ready for the December 15 full council meeting.

Thomas Ditty, General Manager of Seattle Monorail Services, graciously agreed to an interview.

Ditty was not favorable to a contract extension, after an expensive 15-month bid process in which SMS beat out two competitors, due to the possibility that SMS might then not get the contract at the end of that process. But he said, “We will do whatever the City wants.” He called comparisons to other transit systems “apples to pears.” “The monorail is the only transit system in Seattle that makes a profit.” He listed Seattle Center funds that receive money generated from the monorail’s profit.

Ditty gave the number of monthly pass purchasers as roughly 150, annual ridership of over 2 million, annual revenue over $4m, and practical minimum headway of 5-6 minutes.

90 Replies to “City to Study Monorail ORCA Integration”

  1. Missing from all this is raising the cash fare substantially. I favor raising it to $6 day pass. This is well within tourist level comfort levels.

      1. On or off ORCA, but especially on…what is the deal about an all-day pass that makes something possible for Portland and Vancouver BC- the Portland one costing $6 for “adults” and $2 for “Honored Citizens”.

        Since my own honor won’t let me pay such a tiny amount- I get the similarly undeserved honor of getting for $6 in Portland a pass I’d gladly pay ten for.
        On a system with ‘way less light rail than Portland.

        What is the matter with this place? And please don’t anybody say “Separate Agencies”. That’s not an excuse. It’s a confession! At least load at least one on every new $5 ORCA card. With a about five TVM’s along the baggage carousel concourse, each with an arrow pointed toward LINK.

        Even better, arrange with airlines- especially Alaska and Icelandair-to include these cards in every ticket booklet for Seattle. Or at the TVM’s, using same ID code as the one for each electronic ticket. Add $5 per card to plane fare. Who’d notice, or object if they knew?

        And any costs past that? Seriously, chalk it up to Marketing. Beats wrapped windows.


      2. I would lol pretty hard watching tourists get screwed with a pass that’s only valid on the SLUT and monorail.

      3. Most cities have day passes which cover nearly everything (usually commuter express bus routes and commuter rail are excepted). Some more obnoxious cities (New York) don’t, but New York seems to be trying to chase tourists away.

        San Diego, which is completely tourist-centered, makes the day pass their main fare — it costs the same as two Trolley trips, slightly more than three bus trips. Practically everyone buys day passes. They don’t issue “transfers”, they tell you to get a day pass instead.

      4. Um, Mark? Who have you been buying you pass from in Portland?

        The day passes are supposed to be $5
        Unless somehow TriMet figured out how to attach a special out of state credit card sucker punch fee or something.

        For what it is worth, that day pass is a semi-regional thing since C-Tran locals accept those day passes also. No grumbling about revenue share or sales tax rates vs payroll tax funding or all that.

        The real impressive one is the northwest Oregon connection pass
        It’s a 3 day or 7 day pass good on any of 5 transit agencies linking Portland to Rainier, Astoria and south along the coast to Newport and Albany. Oh, and using a simple paper ticket with no proprietary card technology.

      5. Oh, and Kelso and Longview, Washington also. I forgot Columbia County Rider sends its buses over the bridge.

      6. So you can actually take Cascades to Kelso and a bus to Astoria. My roommate said let’s do that next year. Last summer we took a Zipcar to Aberdeen and Ocean Shores, and also went through Olympia/Tumwater along the way.

      7. Mark: Airlines for the most part rarely if ever give out ticket jackets anymore. Its moving to check in at home or on the phone. Or if you check in at the airport you’ll just get a boarding pass. No need for the extra paper.

        It would be nice though if Alaska would consider some program to sell transit passes onboard. The FAs may or may not have enough time to do it though.

      8. A much better solution would be TVMs in baggage claim and throughout the airport. Also, the way finding needs some serious improvement.

    1. There is no reason at all to raise the cash fares. This is a single stop to single stop system, with oodles of dwell time. You aren’t holding up a bus full of riders when you “fumble with your change”. There is no way SMS would get rid of cash fares, and there is little to be gained (by them) in trying to encourage more ORCA card use. It doesn’t really save them any work (OK, maybe a little).

      The big benefit by them are that folks who have the ORCA card will now use the monorail. Generally speaking, they didn’t before. This means new business and thus new revenue. Folks that don’t (tourists) will continue to pay cash.

      1. Raising cash fares makes more money for the city. Tourists are more likely to carry cash and refuse to deal with an ORCA card (if they even know it exists in the first place). Besides, why would they spend the $5 on an ORCA when they can pay the same price with cash?

        There’s no reason we shouldn’t capture that $5 another way. Raise the one-way cash fare by $2, and then tourists are incentivized to spend more, while commuters are incentivized to use ORCA.

      2. Again, commuters don’t need added incentives to use ORCA on the monorail. If they use it, and other transit, it pays for itself very quickly, in both convenience and transfers.

        Unlike the rest of our system, I could care less if they use cash or not. Someone fiddling with cash on a bus slows down everyone on the bus. But someone fiddling with cash at the vending machine to get on the monorail only irritates the other cash users. If we want to gouge someone, gouge the bus rider.

        Raising the fare is a trade-off between the city, SMS and the Seattle Center. The city and the Center want people to ride the monorail, which is why they put restrictions on the fare.

      3. We should probably charge more for cash on Link (and on buses) than we do for ORCA trips, but Link is far more utilitarian than the monorail.

      4. As long as ORCA riders don’t have to stand in line at the ticket booth, it doesn’t matter what cash fares are. I don’t see a reason to raise them, except maybe a nominal 25c or 50c, or to compensate for actual losses to ORCA transfers and PugetPass. $4 or $6 one way is a lot when the monorail ain’t a cable car and people aren’t singing “I Left my Heart in Seattle”.

      5. This raises a broader issue about ticket booths. Some transit systems have manned ticket booths at every subway station. Maybe ST should have one at least at the primary visitor gateway, SeaTac airport. Then there would be a person to explain how to pay a fare, what ORCA is and why it’s worth it, the various fare combinations and connections if they’ll be transferring, and all the other things people don’t always understand when blindly confronted with just a TVM and a couple of signs.

      6. Mike: the monorail is, at this point, a historic artifact. There used to be a lot of little “expo monorails” like this, but they’ve been dismantled worldwide.

        Disney still has the one at Disneyland and the two at Disneyworld, and Las Vegas has its Casino line, and I think Seattle is the only other survivor of the 1960s monorail fad.

        This is not quite as unique as San Francisco, which has the only surviving actively-managed “grip” cable cars in the world (all other cable cars in the world are permanently fixed to the running cable). But the Seattle monorail unique enough now that it is starting to have actual “historic artifact” tourist value, as a time capsule of the 1960s.

      7. Yes, yes yes. I don’t care about the cash fare for tourists, let that be set based on market. I do want ORCA capabilities. In the last 3 years I’ve paid to get on the monorail twice even though I use that route and would more so if they took Orca. I’m always trasferring from another bus so I could transfer and a small amount of revenue that the monorail could bring a bit more revenue. The tourists will still ride it if I’m on it or not. It’s a win win for everyone unless it reaches capacity and there’s no room for tourists.

  2. It seems like this would be a very good transit option for folks working at the Gates Foundation if it were integrated with the buses and trains that use the tunnel.

    Tourists don’t use the Monorail during the morning peak, so it’s reasonable to allow free transfers from other portions of the system until say 9:00 AM. After that time there should be some extra charge to use the Monorail above and beyond the fare paid on ST or Metro. A system like that would give daily commuters a half price break at a minimum, and if there were an ORCA “discount” even more.

      1. Ross,

        The city does not want to lose the revenue it’s making from the Monorail. You can be certain of that. I expect they’d be glad to have people use it in the morning rush hour; only on a very few days a year will there be any tourist use at that time, so giving the folks at Gates or other offices to come in the neighborhood east of Fifth North would be a nice thing to do.

        But in the afternoon they city does not want the extra riders, because getting in a long line might deter the tourists from using it. There are many days, especially in the summer, when the lines are already two trains long in the afternoon.

        So charging at that time of day, with maybe a 50 cent discount for ORCA makes sense.

      2. Anandakos,

        Reading a mind that doesn’t exist is dangerous.

        Transportation Committee Chairman Rasmussen seemed ready to write an 8-figure check to get the 5th-Avenue-street-access built. Do you really think he will change his mind about ORCA integration if it reduces the monorail’s profit by a mere six figures a year? (not that I think it is likely to do that) We will see what “the City” wants when the council votes. But I think we can already count votes to know what the “the City” “wants”. What it will end up doing will take a few more months to find out.

      3. The general tone of this whole conversation misses what I think is the most important part of any fare system: the huge financial benefit to transit of a fast, easy, painless entry to the system, any way and for amount of time.

        Tourist, worker, student, executive, general, diplomat, President of the United States, or Kim Jung going to see Dennis Rodman- fare goal should be go get a fair amount of the passenger’s money fast as possible.

        No matter how ignorant, underslept, jet-lagged, or only-Tibetan-speaking they are. And then ’til the end of the day, week, month, year, or eon…leave them the Hell alone!

        I really think that worse than anyplace else on Earth, Seattle has become populated with a governing class- especially the transit-oriented ones, who are most comfortable when things are complicated. Whether it’s an economy where the average worker is in IT or middle management, or the weather- common sense is unfair competition in game of rules.

        Count the dollars or the pennies- grocery stores have machines that anybody can use for a price much less than transit’s same calculations. Convert an operating day’s receipts systemwide for simple way vs. hard way- Euclid makes giant dump truck with pantographs and head for the grocery.

        Then calculate accumulated cost of every operating delay- including time lost figuring out the fare system at the airport when passenger should already be in Everett with monorail ride included.

        Bet you an espresso my way wins hands down!


      4. If the monorail gets crowded (because of too many paying customers) then run it more often. This isn’t rocket science. As I wrote, there is no practical reason why it can’t run every five minutes (if not more often). It does run more often during busy times, and if it gets busy because of new (ORCA paying) customers, so be it.

        I think people are all over-thinking this. There is no reason to change the cash fare structure, or limit ORCA use during a particular time of day or any of that. The fare is reasonable and almost exactly what a bus or Sound Transit trip costs. The compensation for the agency is reasonable as well, and significant. Just have them accept the ORCA card, compensate them like any other agency, and we are good to go.

      5. Mark wrote: “I really think that worse than anyplace else on Earth, Seattle has become populated with a governing class- especially the transit-oriented ones, who are most comfortable when things are complicated.”

        You seem to have a point. I have no idea why Seattle loves to do things in the most convoluted way possible. Other cities seem to understand the value of simplicity. (LA won’t *implement* anything simple, due to interagency squabbling, but they at least seem to understand it. Everyone else seems to actually be able to implement something.)

      6. “I have no idea why Seattle loves to do things in the most convoluted way possible.”

        Because it’s a region full of computer nerds and engineers!

    1. It does not work to have asymmetrical morning/afternoon policies. People make round trips to go to work; they expect transit to do likewise. If there’s a capacity problem in the afternoon, the answer is to increase capacity. If the PM peak is crowded, tourists will just have to avoid the PM peak, like they do in subways all over the world. The whole point of this change is that the monorail is too valuable as grade-separated transit to be just a tourist attraction. So it has to act like transit and accommodate PM commuters. That may even make it a better tourist attraction because it’s part of locals’ everyday lives rather than a museum piece.

      1. You are certainly right in the abstract. But there are lots of people who will screech if the “profitable” Monorail is suddenly part of the “subsidized” Metro/ST system. Just watch; it’ll be another screaming match.

        Charging pass holders for use in the afternoon peak when the line is actually used pretty heavily makes sense. It does not in the morning.

        Now maybe it’s better just to charge $1.25 per direction for ORCA monthly pass holders and deny the transfer. That way round trippers with an ORCA monthly pass would pay half fare just like my more complicated idea. But it wouldn’t deter afternoon use so effectively.

        And you are smoking some of Washington’s newest herbal concoction if you think that the trains can run twice as often as they do now over the bumpy track for very long. And you’re forgetting that at the Westlake end they have that damn bridge for the east side track.

  3. I think that being able to board the monorail without having to traverse three stories of the Westlake Mall would be a great step toward integrating it with the rest of the transit system.

    1. There’s an outside elevator just south of the monorail ticket booth. It goes to the monorail (3rd floor), 5th Avenue sidewalk (1st floor), and the transit tunnel (Mezzanine). It’s also an easy way to get from the tunnel to the restrooms and food court, although the elevator is slow and you have to walk across the entire 3rd floor to get to the restrooms.

    2. If I’m not mistaken, the city could do all of that themselves (without any cooperation from SMS). I think they are responsible for the mall and the entrance.

  4. The idea that there’s something magical about the monorail because it’s profitable is ridiculous. One of the main advantages of profitable things is supposed to be scalability: private citizens will expand them without any help from the government (like, say, coffee shops)! If the operator owned the track and the vehicles I’d buy the idea that the monorail was profitable in some way. Absent that the monorail is profitable in the way that Chicago’s parking meter concession is profitable: in a way that’s utterly dependent on public investment. It’s profitable as long as the construction is paid off and major capital work isn’t needed. That won’t be true forever — in the long term the costs to keep the structure up are operations costs, and we have paid those costs with grants.

    In today’s cities transit faces a three-way struggle between subsidy, fares, and impact/ridership. Some suburban and rural systems manage to have fairly low per-resident subsidy and low (or non-existent) fares — what they trade off is impact, in that they don’t operate enough service per-resident to plausibly meet a large fraction of people’s transportation needs. Systems like London’s are used by a large portion of the population, so they need to operate lots of service; they also have political forces that want to limit subsidy, resulting in high fares. What sort of “system” is the monorail? There are a few ways of looking at it:

    1. It is a low- or negative-subsidy “system”, with decent ridership within a tiny defined service area, that charges a pretty high fare considering its short distance traveled.

    2. It is a low- or negative-subsidy “system” that charges a similar fare to other nearby transit systems, but is limited in impact and ridership by extremely limited coverage.

    3. It is one small part of a larger transit system, which is interdependent. You could play with some numbers and call certain bus routes and certain trips in Metro’s system “profitable”, but this would ignore their relationship to the things around them.

    Hey, maybe certain kinds of transit are profitable enough that private citizens will pay for their construction and provide a real public benefit — the gondola idea that the Great Wheel operators floated might be that. But I haven’t heard from anyone that thinks there’s a gold mine in expanding the monorail in any direction. Its profitability is not the sort of profitability that drove (e.g.) the expansion of streetcar-and-interurban suburbs a century ago. It’s a line that’s profitable because of its short length and limited scope, within a much larger city where other transportation systems do the heavy lifting.

    1. Actually, often times profitability depends on cultivating scarcity. And scaling takes a back seat.

    2. All that’s true Al, but the main reason it’s profitable is that it’s cool and gives a nice view of the city. Well, at least it used to…..

      Now it gives a good view of the base of towers.

  5. I like how Ditty claims that the monorail “makes a profit.” Ya, it makes a profit all right, but only if you don’t count all the direct subsidies it gets from the government — $1M from the Feds for maintenance just this year.

    One has to wonder exactly how “profitable” the monorail would be if it had to pay for its own upkeep.

    1. I doubt anyone comes to ride the monorail based on legends or realities of its profitability. But one thing Ditty *is* genuinely concerned about is the Seattle Center programming and maintenance that the monorail profit subsidizes. He is very much a fan of the Seattle Center and its cultural contribution to the region.

      If I were in his shoes, I, too, would be financially conservative when asked to roll the dice on a proposal that might double the monorail’s profit or might wipe it out. He needs to see the numbers. I’m confident he’ll like what he sees when the numbers are crunched. Of course, I am not in his shoes, and place a higher priority on maximizing the monorail’s use as a transit line, which might not be his priority.

      1. What the myth of monorail profitability does is reinforce the false believe amongst the general population that monorail tech is somehow superior to other techs. This is not true as is generally obvious by the lack of monorail development over the last century.

        And Ditty is just a supplier to the city. As such the city decides what will oe won’t be supplied. His only choice in the matter is whether or not he wants to continue to participate or not.

  6. OK, now that that is settled, how about we address my other two concerns ( :)

    Seriously, though, this is wonderful. I had no idea that this would lead to such fast action (obviously it was all about the timing). It is easy to get on a blog and complain or raise questions (as I did) but it is rare to have the opportunity to make positive change, as we did. The most surprising thing about the monorail discussion was the number of people who would use it if if had a sensible fare structure. This makes sense, in retrospect. Not only is is the best way to get to the Seattle Center from Westlake Station, but it is better than the buses in getting to the surrounding neighborhood. The buses aren’t especially close to Westlake Station, but the monorail is. So you have to walk a couple blocks either way, and you might as well avoid all the traffic, and walk through the Seattle Center.

    I would still like to see higher frequencies on the monorail, (as I proposed) but I think this is possible with the old agreement. I’m just not sure how much leverage we have with SMS. Can we pressure them to increase the frequency, or is that simply out of our hands?

    1. It’s worth mentioning that the Seattle Monorail *does* increase frequency during high traffic events at Seattle Center.

      But I just don’t see why the frequency needs to be increased around the clock. At 10 minute frequencies around the clock the Monorail is already more frequent than RapidRide and almost as frequent as Central Link.

      Remember, these trains are antiques. It would be difficult to have both trains up and running 7 days a week.

      1. Good point about the age of the machines. But I fear that while ORCA use will substantially increase ridership, ten minute frequency will hamper those efforts. In this case, the monorail competes with buses. The buses don’t run that frequently, but for this particular use, they overlap quite a bit. This means that the frequency is probably a lot higher than ten minutes.

        But I could easily see a compromise and an experiment. A few months after ORCA is accepted, run the trains every five minutes during rush hour, and ten minutes the rest of the time (and higher during events, as they do right now). See if that leads to an uptick in ridership. If so, keep it; if not, then go back to doing what has been done.

      2. The D/1/2/13 run with a combined frequency of 6 minutes (according to Google) and a trip to Key Arena takes about 15 minutes (without traffic).

        The 3/4 run with a combined frequency of 15 minutes and a trip to the EMP museum takes about 12 minutes (without traffic).

        The monorail runs with a frequency of 10 minutes and a trip to the takes about 2 minutes (without traffic, ever).

        Maybe if the trains were run with two operators (so they don’t have to walk from one end of the train to the other) the turnaround time can be trimmed down by a few minutes.

        So even if you walked up to the monorail right as it pulled away (happened to me the other day) the total trip time is 12 minutes. That’s as fast as the trip on a bus, if the bus pulled up right as you walked up.

      3. Yeah, the monorail is much faster. But that last scenario assumes that both the bus and the monorail are going to the same location. If you are headed towards the Center, the monorail probably always makes sense. If you are right outside Westlake Center, then it probably does as well. But if you just got off a different bus and you are trying to get to a different part of Uptown, it depends. These edge cases are the ones that would be made better by increased frequency.

        Again, I have no idea if it is worth it or not. That would, of course, increase the cost, along with wear and tear on them, etc. But it may be worth it, overall, if it really becomes the standard way not only to the Seattle Center, but the surrounding neighborhood. The most important way to increase ridership on this forgotten line is to support the ORCA card. This will, of course increase publicity (and may even get Google to recognize it as transit).

  7. Great! It’s small, but it’s little pieces like this that add up to a seamless, user-friendly system. Well done all!

  8. It amazes me how the city has a contract with a private operator that creates incentives to run a low overhead operation and provides significant revenue to the city, and people here want to micromanage it to increase costs without any particular benefit to the operator. I can understand why SMS might be reasonably upset if they had won a bid to renew their contract and late in the approval process the city wanted to impose new conditions on the contract.

    It makes sense to study how ORCA integration could be done in a way that benefits both parties. It doesn’t make sense at this stage to impose conditions on the contract to lower headways, dictate cash fare differentials or demand acceptance of ORCA passes or transfers.

    1. Well, the way to do this that benefits SMS as well as the city is to do what I said above: make free transfers (not free fare) in the AM peak and allow ORCA use at a discounted rate (maybe $1.50) but without a transfer to other services for passholders in the afternoon. ORCA purse users in the afternoon would pay the regular fare.

      So, a passholder working at Gates who now uses the 3 or 4 to get to work would pay $1.50 extra a day to use the fast as a greased pig Monorail instead of the stuck in the Fifth North 3/4 tortoise (or the 5/16 which is pretty quick but a longer walk). An ORCA purse user would pay $2.50 a day.

      Workers at Gates or another facility built in the area would learn on which days the line will be bad enough that it’s not worth the buck-fifty or two-fifty and ride the bus. The rest of the time the revenue would be “free” to SMS and the city, because they probably aren’t riding now at $5.00 a day.

      1. The way to make this mutually beneficial is to concoct a system with full fare integration that welcomes the monorail fully into the city’s transit system in a way that probably should have happened 50 years ago, while retaining a cash fare for tourists and other non-ORCA users at a level that allows SMS to continue to reap the return on its operational investment that was anticipated when it bid for the contract.

        With two Venn sets that barely intersect in the slightest, this really should not be very hard to achieve.

      2. The monorail at one time was fare integrated with metro. When I was but a wee lad I remember when the monorail drivers wore brown Metro jackets and the monorail took Metro transfers and day passes.

      3. That’s really good to know, Chris!

        Those who would fight to preserve the “profitable” status quo will probably claim that it’s been operating in isolation from the real transit system forever and ever.

        Got a date for when its operational doctrine went insane?

      4. I remember that Metro used to operate the monorail but I don’t remember about transfers. They probably stopped at the same time. So why did Metro stop operating the monorail? Was it some wave of privatizationism? Maybe it makes sense to have Metro operate it again, like it’s doing for the streetcars. Then there wouldn’t be any impediment to ORCAization and fare synchronization.

      5. According to Wikipedia Seattle Monorail Services took over in 1994.

        Perhaps Mark Dublin could verify the date?

      6. This report from the Landmarks Preservation Board confirms that Metro operated the monorail from 1973, when it absorbed the Seattle Transit System, to 1994.

        I strongly suspect that the change in operator was related to the merger of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle into King County, effective January 1, 1994.

      7. I believe when Metro operated the monorail, they did so by providing operators (route 689 if I remember correctly).

        The cashiers (staffed with only one on-board cashier during non-peak times – enter through only one door at those times, and during peak times staffed with at least one cashier in the booth(s) at each terminal) were City of Seattle employees. But passes and transfers were not accepted.

        I don’t know who performed train maintenance – Metro or Seattle Center.

      8. Chris says it was fare-integrated.

        So either someone’s memory is faulty, or the policies were different at different points on the timeline.

    2. Other than the purchase of ORCA readers, which will probably have to be purchased by the city anyway, how does this increase costs? It might even decrease costs a bit as the ORCA could be used for the monthly pass rather than have a completely separate system.

      1. If frequency has to be increased, then, yes, costs go up. By how much I do not know yet. That would be in the category of “a wonderful problem to have”.

        The cost of administering the 150 monthly passes is probably negligible.

        The cost the operator (and some of us, who hope the monorail becomes more profitable) is concerned about is the lost revenue from riders who have been paying full fare, and would take the opportunity to save money by switching to paying with ORCA. That’s why the City will try to project the fiscal impact over the next three months. It seems pretty certain that nearly everyone who pays with ORCA will generate less than the cash ticket price in revenue for the monorail. I am trying to get data to give a range for how much less.

      2. If frequency goes up, it is because paying customers go up. No one rides for free. This isn’t like the streetcar; you don’t get a free ride just because you showed them your ORCA card. Get off a bus and flash your ORCA card, SMS makes money. Use your monthly pass, and SMS makes money. They will make a little less than if you paid full fare, but I would bet you good money (and five you very good odds) that very few people who paid full fare would have used their ORCA cards.

        This is a train, for heaven’s sake. It scales really well. A full train full of passengers who are all paying with ORCA cards after riding a bus (and thus to them “riding for free”) will make just as much profit for SMS as a train half-full of cash paying customers.

  9. Is opening up ORCA to private businesses in general something that could be feasible? It’s already a versatile and innovative system, and it even works offline as long as the ORCA reader can connect to the internet at least once a day. It would be really cool to be able to take an Uber or Bolt Bus with an ORCA card.

    1. It would be really hard because it is a proprietary system. Newer systems, such as the new Chicago card, have a system that make them a bit more like a credit card. Supposedly the proprietary nature of the ORCA is why TriMet decided against adopting it.

      1. Yes and no. It’s proprietary in the sense that it only works in the Puget Sound region, but Sound Transit owns it, and the original contract specifically mandated that it be designed so that other regions or operators could join – including the monorail. The cards themselves are comparable with standard NFC technologies, so with a little coding work it could be done.

        The biggest issue is that the current vendor maintaining the system, Vix, charges insane prices for their services. ERG itself was bought by them after going bankrupt, and ORCA is the last system in the US they run – everyone else has defected to Cubic or some other vendor, at this point. I honestly wish we’d do the same: Cubic has a definite edge technology wise, significant experience with large and growing systems, and I can’t imagine their contract pricing being worse than Vix/ERG.

      2. What would be involved in moving to Cubic? Would every Orca reader on buses and trains need to be replaced? What about Orca cards? (What about Orca cards bought several months ago, stashed in a sock drawer unused, and not brought out until several months after transition?)

      3. Not much, really. You certainly wouldn’t need to replace everything: San Francisco’s Clipper card completed the exact same transition in 2010, with no major issues. They still used the old ERG equipment where it’s installed (like the readers on busses and trains – many of which still read “Translink”, the old name for Clipper), but use Cubic’s equipment for newer stuff like TVMs or Faregates in the Muni Metro. Old cards (including the old TransLink cards) still work.

        So, yes, it’s very doable. You wouldn’t be replacing the system, just changing the contractor responsible for it’s day-to-day administration, development, and payment settlement.

    2. The Husky Card (which holds the UPass) can be used at participating merchants. However, the cash value on the card cannot be used for transit services.

      Utah Transit Authority services accept most debit/credit cards.

      Chicago Transit Authority’s Ventra Card is a MasterCard debit card, holding both passes and cash value. BTW, the card “costs” $5, but comes with $5 of cash loaded.

      I believe the future of fare payment will be primarily debit and credit cards, with communication hardware meeting the international EMV standard (since that is what is now on debit and credit cards outside the US&A), and some sort of alternative smart card for the “unbanked”, if there is no state/city bank to provide traditional money-handling services for the traditionally unbanked.

  10. Is there any data for the amount of $40 monthly passes sold for the monorail? There was a times article a few years ago about the handful of daily commuters. The very few who happen to live in LQA and work near Westlake. Seems like they’d miss out on exploiting maybe a handful of loyal customers in exchange for many, many more if they started accepting orca.

      1. There is no reason this needs to align with Metro fares any more than Sound Transit fares need to align with Metro fares (they don’t). The fares are (as luck would have it) quite reasonable, and quite close to Metro and Sound Transit. SMS would get compensated the same as any other agency, based on their own fare structure. For example, let’s assume I am a senior/disabled card holder, and ride both an ST express bus in one county, followed by a Metro bus. Metro and ST both charge 75 cents, so they both split that amount (37.5 cents a piece). But if I rode ST for two counties followed by Metro, they would split $2,25 (with ST getting the bulk of it). SMS would simply work like any other transit agency, and get their fair share of the fare.

        Furthermore, there is no evidence whatsoever that this would have a “negative impact” on their profitability. There is anecdotal evidence to the contrary, based on the comments on the original thread. Several people said they would like to ride the monorail, but don’t, because they require cash. No one said “This would be great! I take the monorail all the time. This would save me oodles of cash.”.

        With only 150 monthly pass users, it no wonder. That number is so small it cracks me up. Anyway, if all of those users currently own ORCA monthly passes and all of those users spend most of their time on other transit (that costs the same amount or more) then SMS would take a hit. But let’s run the numbers, shall we. To make it simple, I’ll assume that half the trips are on Metro, and half the trips are on the monorail. I’ll also assume that the rider purchases a $2.25 fare based monthly pass, which costs $81. This will allow them full use of the monorail without paying anything each time. So, with all this extra Metro bus usage, SMS takes a hit. Instead of getting $45 a month, they get half of $81, or $40.50. So, if all users are in this category this would cost SMS $4.50 a user, per month, or $8,100 a year (for everyone). Wow, how will they ever survive? Seriously, that is peanuts, and that is based on some very generous assumptions.

        No, this is all very obvious. Mr. Ditty is being very conservative. I don’t blame him. He runs a successful business and has been doing it this way for years. Some think it crazy that he doesn’t even accept credit cards; but hey, it works for them. With the city taking 2/3 of SMS profit, it makes sense to be conservative — why take a chance if even if you are successful you only take home 1/3 of the money (and then pay taxes on that). This is why they need to be cajoled into doing what a normal, competitive business would do — take a very minor risk to maximize profits.

    1. Ca. 150 monthly passes are sold each month, per SMS GM Thomas Ditty.

      The monthly pass is now $45, or $20 for seniors (65+) and riders with disabilities.

      Right now, the youth fare ($1.00) is for ages 5-12. Aligning with the outside world would involve giving free frides to the 5-year-olds (with a paying adult) and reduced fares to teens, through age 18. That will be a negative impact on revenue from non-ORCA payers.

      However, alignment with Metro fares would raise the youth fare from $1 up to Metro’s $1.50. Aligning the full fare would raise it from the current $2.25 up to $2.50, or maybe even $2.75 during 6-9 AM and 3-6 PM. That would likely be a larger positive impact.

      Honoring the Kitsap and King County low-income ORCA would be another negative impact, but I don’t see the city council excluding the monorail from the low-income program, once the ORCA readers are installed. This step doesn’t require honoring monthly passes or transfers, but charging ORCA holders separately to ride the monorail would kind of defeat the point.

      The monorail could opt to require a Regional Reduced Fare Permit in order to get the senior/disabilities rate, which would result in charging senior tourists and tourists with disabilities the full fare. But Ditty was reluctant to gouge tourists. It struck him as not a nice thing to do. (Reluctance to charge tourists more but hesitation to open up the monorail to thousands of daily commuters, some of whom are seniors and riders with disabilites, suggests he hasn’t fully thought this through yet.)

      The City could also theoretically calculate the fiscal impact of running fewer commute runs on the 1/2/3/4/5/16/D/E as riders move to the monorail, but it is unclear whether the City will take advantage of such efficiencies, given the unfortunate way Prop 1 was sold to stop all cuts, even where they are merited. The City could at least calculate the savings from future planned increases in commuter runs that would not happen because of opening up the monorail to commuters.

      Speaking of Prop 1, I wonder if those funds could be available to cover any net negative impact on monorail fare revenue from ORCAzation, or could pay to provide extra peak service on the monorail.

    2. I assume that most monorail passholders are not regular transit riders, because $40 a month is a bargain on its own but it’s a lot on top of a $90 PugetPass or cash bus fares. Most of them are probably parking in the Mercer garage and working downtown, so the cost is compared to downtown parking. A few of them might live within a few blocks of the station, or working at the Gates Foundation or Seattle Center. But if they’re working Uptown, then the question becomes where do they live? They’d have to live downtown to avoid a bus fare on top of the monorail fare. Few people live downtown, and those that do are rich. So they’d have to be high-paid Gates Foundation employees or Seattle Center managers, not the rank and file. Unless they do take the bus and treat the $40 pass as an entertainment expense because It’s a Train!!!, and a Unique Train at that.

      So the upshot for these park-n-riders is their monthly pass would cost 50-100% more, unless the monorail continues offering a monorail-only pass.

      1. Oh, I don’t know, Mike, it is hard to tell. Why don’t we just ask them — there are only 150 of them — I’ll get on the phone …

        Seriously, though, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the monthly pass riders also are ORCA users. If you live close to Link (say, Rainier Valley) and work in the Seattle Center then riding the monorail probably saves you twenty minutes a day. Is twenty minutes (and a more pleasant ride) worth a couple bucks? I think most people would say yes. As you implied, it is quite possible that some of the companies subsidize it as well.

        My guess is that it is a mix. I would think that the most likely monorail pass only user is commuting from Uptown to downtown and just wants to save a few bucks (monthly). As you said, I would imagine there are a lot fewer going the other way (that only have the monorail pass). Most of the people downtown are in Belltown, and the monorail is hardly convenient for them. There are probably people who use it occasionally and figure they might as well get it (and yes, I would guess a lot of these people are wealthy).

        There are so few people that I’m not worried about it. Personally, I would keep it (why not?). If use starts drying up, then they can end it. At that point, it might be more profitable for SMS to end it. Not only would this mean removing the overhead with a monthly pass, but it would likely get them more revenue. Once ORCA support is integrated, the only folks that will want to buy a monthly monorail pass are people who rarely use other transit. If the monthly monorail pass ended, then they would buy a monthly ORCA card, and SMS would get most of that money. But I think that is way down the road, and really should be SMS’s call.

  11. Really embarrassed not to remember more about Metro ceasing to run the monorail. 1994 sounds right. So does merger with King County. I do remember that I never operated the monorail or the Waterfront Streetcar.

    As I remember my own thinking, the two specialty routes weren’t long enough to be interesting. The Monorail seemed pretty much like an elevator. My specialty was the 4000 series artics on the Route 7. Finished my driving days on Tunnel routes.

    However, I just thought of the reason New York City doesn’t have day passes: the official in charge is a total fan of whoever played the “Soup Nazi” on Seinfeld. In his world, New Yorkers have broken thousands of rules on the order of standing at the counter drumming their fingers on the glass, like Elaine did.

    So this is just a huge “No Pass for You!!!!!!” Point about the soup guy was that New Yorkers just love being customers of such people- like Seinfeld’s example had lines around the block. Doubt it would work in Seattle-especially because people would always be working on different ways to be kind to him to make him nicer.

    But maybe Metro or ST could find somebody from Turkey or Russia, or worst of all, Israel or some other non-passive aggressive place and put him in charge of ORCA. At least arbitrary retaliation for slow choosing or finger-tapping would make more sense than current fare system.

    You got a PROBLEM wit dat?


    1. I think the real reason the MTA doesn’t have 1 or 3 day passes is to exploit tourists. They have a wry way of making sure your card has extra change left over too. They pull all kinds of tricks to get money – it’s a perfect allegory for northeastern politics.

    2. No, the reason why New York doesn’t have a day pass is because swipe sellers used them frequently to get people through. Obviously a swipe seller could use seven day passes as well, but then they would run the risk of it getting disabled due to suspicious use one or two days into the seven day period. Most tourists are in New York longer than three or four days anyway so the cost is reasonable.

  12. As I mentioned in the other thread, there is also an option of charging a separate cash fare and ORCA fare for Puget Pass allocation purposes, similar to the Metro Lakeside School buses and Boeing Bus that charge a different cash fare. So, the cash fare could be $2.50, but the ORCA fare could be $4.00, in effect giving pass holders a dollar discount on monorail fare, while some people would be incentivized to get a hgiher value Puget Pass.

    1. Yes, that could be done, theoretically, if the goal were to continue catering to tourists and infrequent riders, and discourage commuters from using the monorail.

      But the infrequent riders and tourists are mostly during major weekend events, so why discourage the commuters?

      1. Except that, as noted above, there are long lines during summer weekday afternoons. You could charge an off-peak or peak fare with a different regime as well.

        The goal is to have SMS continue to operate the railway, after all, and not have them take their ball and go home, while the city tries to find another contractor to operate the service, possibly shutting down the system in the process. I think the city councilmembers are cognizant of that and so are willing to study the issue to improve accessibility, but not at the risk of effectively firing SMS.

  13. If they want the Monorail to be a real option, they have to do something about that Westlake Station. I took the monorail about a month ago, and was reminded about what a cluster that thing is. In this case, the mall was closed (it was only about 6pm on a Sunday) so everyone was funneled down that grim staircase or onto that cheap hydraulic elevator. It’s obvious that the Westlake Station was an afterthought on an incredibly poor mall design, and a far cry from the original Westlake station.

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