ORCA on the monorail:  a winning bet?
ORCA on the monorail: a winning bet?
With the City getting ready to study the costs and benefits of integrating the Seattle Center Monorail into the ORCA fare and pass system used by eight local transit agencies, a look at some ORCA use and revenue data is in order.

The 3rd Quarter ORCA Joint Board Program Management Report breaks down revenue and boardings by pass type, for the months of July through September. For purposes of math, I simply took the summations for the three months.

Product Type Revenue Boardings Revenue Per Boarding
Business Passport $23,434,997 11,211,971 $2.09
Regional Pass $11,649,456 7,606,026 $1.53
Agency Product $1,791,258 962,798 $1.86
E-Purse $13,740,147 7,571,423 $1.81
Total $50,615,858 27,352,218 $1.85

The monorail has annual ridership a little over 2,000,000 and revenue a little over $4,000,000, coming out to $2 revenue per ride.

What would happen if the monorail started accepting ORCA, inter-agency transfers, and passes?

If every monorail rider were to start using ORCA (just for the sake of worst-case argument), the monorail got the typical distribution of $1.85 per ORCA tap, and zero new monorail riders came forth, the monorail would lose $300,000 of its annual profit. If just 163,000 new annual boardings end up being added, the monorail would break even on ORCAzation. If ridership doubled, the monorail’s profit would increase by $3,400,000.

Let’s assume something even worse: Every monorail rider becomes an ORCA regional pass user, and the monorail only gets $1.53 distributed to it for each ORCA tap. If zero new riders came forth, the monorail’s profit would go down by $940,000 annually. The break-even point would be 615,000 new riders. If ridership doubled, the monorail would pull in $2,120,000 of new annual revenue.

It is hard to envision a scenario coming to pass in which the monorail doesn’t make a windfall off of ORCAzation.

20 Replies to “ORCA Revenue Per Boarding”

  1. If only the Westlake Monorail station had the same queuing capacity that the original station had. Forcing all passengers to hold for the next train in less than half the platform length causes the line at the fare booth to extend into the mall making it difficult to fill the train quickly.

    Wouldn’t ORCA provide a solution to this by moving fare collection further away from the platform. Using something like Proof of Payment to keep everybody honest – and using the entire platform and all doors to load?

    1. I’ve only taken it once, but it seemed like the Seattle Center station is the one where everyone pays, no matter where they board? So that you pay when leaving or boarding at Seattle Center?

    2. You can have all fares collected at Seattle Center using an on/off faregate array and an employee sweeping the train to make sure all passengers get off.

    3. They use the “Spanish solution” at the Seattle Center station, which has three platforms. The center platform is for paid Westlake-bound passengers, while the outer platforms are for exiting passengers, who pass through one-way turnstiles.

  2. Assuming ORCA is accepted on the Monorail, if ST3 doesn’t include a Ballard-DT via LQA route, I’d think it only logical to add an infill station for the Monorail at Battery St, which is where Corridors A-D show a station. Belltown would have a grade separated ROW at a fraction of the cost of a new line and almost instantly when compared to Sound Transit’s time table. We should be optimizing our current infrastructure.

    1. I am leery of any idea that involves modifying the monorail at all as it may require us to reconstruct the whole thing to meet current federal and state safety requirements.

      This is certainly a problem with extending the monorail at all, but would it be possible to even just add a new station without having to tear down and rebuild it?

      1. A worthy point, but let’s not be so afraid of regulations as to not explore and study any idea. If we use past codes as an excuse, how is that any different from the current Light Rail stations designed under the 2009 & 2012 Seattle Code Cycles that wont be constructed for 10 years. The light rail system wont have to be upgraded to current standards in that scenario. The new infill monorail station will be up to current standards, but we wont have to bring the rest of the monorail system into compliance. Besides, the designers can always make a case for a code alternate approval if need be. Bottom line, I believe it’s worth pursuing in a study.

    2. I think the bigger question is whether it is worth spending the money. I don’t think it would be that expensive, but I don’t think it would be that popular, either. It isn’t that far from there to either location (five blocks). Does it make sense to walk up some stairs, wait for a train, then walk down some stairs or just walk it? What if you are a block closer to your destination? Two blocks? You pretty much have to be right next to the station for this to make sense, and even then, a fast walker might beat you to your destination.

      I think this would be significantly different if the monorail kept going either direction, or the transfer was easier. The transfer isn’t bad, but it isn’t great, either. This is in contrast to a Belltown stop for a Ballard to downtown line. If you are headed to Ballard, then of course you get on that stop. Even if you are connecting to Central Link it might be worth it, just because this will (presumably) be right next to it.

      If we were starting from scratch, then this would have gone to the other end of downtown, and there would have been a stop in Belltown, as well as several others along the way (like the stops in the transit tunnel). But I’m afraid it is way too late for that.

  3. Brent, thanks for linking that ORCA report – for whatever reason, I haven’t seen it before. Lots of interesting data.

    The high amount of Business Passport revenue is really surprising to me. I assume that is where the U-Pass revenue is allocated along with all of the employer contracts but I never would have guessed it is so large compared to PugetPass.

    Also interesting that the 3rd/Union Bartell Drugs location is doing over $1MM in annual ORCA sales. That is amazing.

  4. Would the Monorail get a different amount if the “ORCA tap” was for a transfer from a Metro or Sound Transit route?

    1. The agency from which a rider is transfering doesn’t matter. The price of that ride does. Also, chronological order of the rides does not matter, only whether they were within the same 2-hour transfer window.

      Oran wrote a brilliant synopsis of the formulae for the revenue split here.

  5. I would think a private for-profit company would have a difficult time wanting to join, and justifying the costs of joining the regional smart-card system. I’m sure the city would have to pick up the costs to join the program, purchasing and installing the equipment, etc., and if I were the monorail operator I could envision that I would want some sort of guarantee from the city that I will make money from agreement (i.e. costs of revenue collection will be no greater than currently, payment made in a timely fashion, pass and transfer revenue sharing will not be onerous, etc.)

    1. I assume the city would buy the equipment and install it as a capital expense. Both because it’s the city’s decision and the city’s responsibility to integrate fares, and because otherwise the operator would own the equipment and could take it away when somebody else gets the operating contract. That doesn’t sound right for something that’s supposed to stay with the monorail long term.

    2. How much would the equipment really need to cost? There are only two stations, and presumably, there’s already wi-fi for use as a data connection. I suspect the real cost is going to be negotiating between the different bureaucracies. For instance, would Metro get cold feet about having to share the fare revenue with the Monorail from someone going from, say, the Central District to Seattle Center, where, in today’s world, Metro would get to keep the whole $2.50 for itself?

      1. I tend to believe the Executive and County Council will jump at yet another opportunity to help the transit agencies act as one (though I don’t think there is any action they need to take).

  6. Excellent article. I agree completely with the conclusion. It is extremely likely that SMS would come out ahead if they start using ORCA. Even if they don’t, we are talking peanuts here (less than a million assuming no new riders). I’m sure folks will haggle over the details, but let’s face it, this just makes sense.

    1. I agree too. I would use the monorail more if I could transfer to a bus at the ends. Currently I walk because I’m too cheap to pay twice. So if I’m tired I take a bus or drive. I don’t spend that much time when downtown, so parking prices aren’t so much a factor.

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