Per Rochelle Ogershok at King County, the ORCA Joint Board is considering adjusting the regular and youth card fees ($5), with a decision expected in the next two months. The Regional Reduced Fare Permit card fee ($3) is set by an interlocal agreement among all the members of the ORCA pod, plus a few more agencies outside the pod, so that fee is not being looked at.

kids on Laredo busIt should come as a shock to nobody that children disproportionately live in poverty. Indeed, the annual count done by Kids Count Data Center has the portion of children under 18 in Washington living below 200% of the federal poverty level hovering closely around 40%. That number contrasts with 28% of the state’s adult population qualifying as below 200% of the federal poverty level.

The ORCA Lift program’s eligibility threshold is 200% of the federal poverty level. However, the card is for adults. The fare structure, on the services that accept the LIFT ORCA, has the LIFT fare identical to the youth fare, at least when using ORCA.

One difference is the card fee. King County opted to not have a fee for the LIFT ORCA. The $5 youth card fee remains in place.

Many public school students get a free card, and loaded passes, through their school district. In those cases, the school district is assumedly eating the card cost.

Nearly every transit service in the ORCA pod allows riders 6-18 to pay the youth fare just by paying that amount of cash. The King County Water Taxis are the exception. So, there is little incentive to get the card, unless it is being offered for free through one’s school.

The agencies want to partially recuperate the administrative costs of card production and distribution. Of course, the agencies will probably save more in bus travel time speed-ups by simply offering the card for free. The main differences between the regular and youth administrative calculations is that youth card distribution is a little more expensive, and the transit agencies would end up charging the school districts less. (This would not necessarily be a bad result, if we want school district money to be spent first and foremost on education.) Also, there is little reason to believe youth cardholders would treat the card as disposable or swiftly replaceable.

The ORCA Joint Board may look to the $3 RRFP card fee (which is actually a “permit fee”, with the card technically being free) as a philosophical reason for keeping the regular card fee at least $3. However, there is nothing in law requiring that the RRFP permit or card fee be no higher than the regular card fee. Again, it comes down to gambling lots of service hours that people will readily pay $3 for the card rather than continue just paying with cash, years of evidence (See page 13.) to the contrary. And it would still leave ORCA as easily the most expensive bus smart card in the USA if one doesn’t count Utah Transit Authority’s Fare Pay, which exists only because not every rider has contactless debit/credit cards, which are readily accepted on UTA services.

Nor does the RRFP interlocal agreement pre-empt having $3 of e-purse pre-loaded on each new RRFP ORCA card.

13 Replies to “The Other Low-Income ORCA Card Fee”

  1. With all due respect, may I suggest that this article be edited to be more straightforward (i.e. who currently pays what and what change is being considered)? It is a worthy subject, and while the information about poverty rates among children made sense, I had trouble understanding the main point I think you were trying to make. I don’t think that was because I am a relatively new resident of Seattle or that I am only half-way through my morning coffee.


    1. Fares for all the transit agencies that accept the ORCA card can be found here.

      This article is not about any proposed fare change, but merely the cost (to the passenger) of getting an ORCA card. The card costs are listed in this article. The Regional Fare Coordination Board (frequently referred to as “Joint ORCA Board”) is considering lowering this fee, likely to $3 for regular cards, and possibly lower for youth cards.

      Since the agencies want passengers to use the ORCA card, as it saves a few seconds per boarding (on buses) over fumbling for change, I have pointed out repeatedly how charging for getting the card is a perverse incentive against obtaining it, and how, even once obtained, use of the card is undercut by offering paper transfers (now just on King County Metro buses) that end up being a better deal than the 2-hour electronic transfer credit carried on ORCA. Metro was originally going to get rid of paper transfers in 2010, right after ORCA was rolled out, but the county council succumbed to political pressure and said no, in large part because of the $5 cost of getting an ORCA card.

      You can use the search function at the upper right to find blog articles concerning your favorite topics.

      Thanks for checking us out, and welcome to Seattle!

  2. Man, is this one is as overdue as a return to this country’s previous habit of every generation paying for the education of the next one, instead of forcing them to borrow the money for it!

    My “Senior” (still an excellent principle for the labor movement, but I think “Experienced” is better respect for my age) ORCA card costs $54 a month- and I use it to the max. If I paid $64 or $70, would that seriously help pay for the cards of people in their formative years?

    If so- can do without pastry with my coffee. And can also use my Starbucks’ Barista countertop machine more. Since movies suck so bad, that cost is already taken care of by film industry itself.

    But to me, the most important benefit that free rides for the young provide transit, is the habit of, and affection for, using transit. Also fewer inexperienced drivers, though they delay transit less than their elders who should know how to drive but don’t.

    And the greater benefit to taxpayers, especially their parents, is the money they won’t have to spend on an extra car. And insuring it for a beginning driver. And to the police and emergency medics for same group and same reasons.


    1. Why can’t the senior and youth fare be the same price, as it is in most places I have visited. It seems odd that I pay more for my 8-year-old grandson’s ride than my own. Makes sense to have the initial purchase price of the senior/disabled card be at least ten dollars instead of just three.

      1. The senior fare, along with the disabilities fare, is required to be no higher than half the regular peak fare, on any given transit service that receives federal funding. However, the agencies are allowed to require a special permit to get this reduced fare, and so most of the local agencies require a Regional Reduced Fare Permit (a specialized version of the ORCA card) to get the reduced fare.

        Youth fares are optional, but most of the local agencies have a standard of offering a reduced fare for riders age 6-18, (and free for 5 and below, when accompanied by a fare-paying adult, with a limit on the number of free riders per accompanying adult). A few of the agencies match the youth and RRFP fares. Most, especially in King County, do not. Metro raised the youth fare above the RRFP fare back in 2011, after various school districts, including Seattle’s, starting giving free passes to qualifying students instead of yellow bus service.

        The RRFP fares have been resistant to increase due to the rate at which senior citizens vote. However, the loss of the $99 annual transit pass that used to be available to seniors was a huge increase, back in 2010, IIRC.

  3. I just paid $19.87 for a halibut steak from my butcher, so I really can’t speak to the issue of whether poor kids should get low cost bus service, however, it’s not just ORCA or cash. Even having got an ORCA card you still have to have a computer and a bank account and set up auto-pay to not have to fuss with it. And the only card reader around where you can juice up an ORCA here in the very impoverished region of Kent is at Kent Station.

    So, here’s this kid up on Kent East Hill, and his school gives him an ORCA card, and it has $10 on it say, so he uses it until it stops working, and gives the driver a look and the driver lets him pass. Then what? He goes to his Mom, who is working 3 minimum wage shifts, and cashes her pay at the payloans place and asks her to go on the computer and connect her non-existent bank account to an ORCA card?

    I don’t think this has been thought all the way through…or if it has, then at best ORCA is a system to make those who can afford to pay, and have the skills to work it, pay into the transit system. For those who have a necessity of using it, like a Sec. 8 kid, I just hope the bus drivers turn a blind they normally do.

    1. We should install machines on the bus that allow you to insert an Orca card, followed by a wad of cash, with the amount of money inserted added to the card’s balance. The machine can go at the back of the bus so that people fiddling with it don’t delay the bus. The buses in Houston already do this and I don’t see a good reason why we can’t too besides the Orca system being run with an antiquated back end by a bloated contract.

      1. Now that’s certainly the best plan. By far. (And of course no fee for the Orca card.)

        Has someone contacted Houston to get an explanation of how they did it and how much it cost, to communicate with Metro, Sound Transit, et al?

      2. Perhaps the purchase of a card could come with a set number of rides included, enough to make getting the card a bargain. Having the kids coming on the bus with wads of cash seems to me like asking for trouble.

      3. The machines would reduce the capacity of the bus, so they would come with an operational cost on top of the capital cost.

        Pre-loading transit smart cards with a monetary balance (e-purse as we call it on ORCA) is a widespread practice, as is charging for the card, but having the pre-loaded balance be almost as much as, or as much as, the card fee.

        Calling ORCA Customer Service, and adding value over the phone, is possible if you have a debit or credit card.

        Handling riders without even a bank or credit union account remains a challenge, but the fare system should not default to running as if everyone is in that situation.

      4. What about also expanding the number of vendors who can sell/refill the card. I know that you can theoretically buy ORCAs at some Bartell’s/QFC’s/some other places but it seems not that easy.

        Buenos Aires does this sort of well–just about any corner store can sell you a SUBE (though I did once run into the odd situation where a corner stall was able to sell me a SUBE card but was “out of refills”)

      5. For my high school in Queens, many of us used to take transit in (because it was a desirable school in the Catholic system). I rode a Green Line bus 30 minutes and then had a 15 minute walk (or could take a one stop subway ride) to get there and back.

        MTA had discount monthly passes for schools, but it was all managed by the school system. You had to buy them every month and they changed colors to disparage cheating.

        So, maybe the same would work here with ORCA. Beyond the initial card cost, and a few loaded rides, the school charge up the card with its computers, as long as the student makes whatever subsidized fee for the pass is needed. Charities or government can cover the cost entirely as needed.

      6. In Houston, the machines consume the equivalent of about 1 seat. Since their buses never fill anyway, the theoretical reduction in capacity means absolutely nothing in practice. Definitely a lot more convenient than navigating a bunch of phone numbers and waiting on hold for 10 minutes. Not to mention that phone conversions don’t work well on board a bus – unless you have noise cancelling headphones, the road noise makes it extremely difficult to hear the person at the other end of the line.

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