Late last year, pressure from Seattle Transit Blog leaders led the City to require a study on integrating the Seattle Center Monorail into the ORCA system. Last June, Seattle Center delivered its report, as discovered by alert reader Kevin Heim.

The bottom line is that there are three steps necessary for ORCA integration:

  • The city must conduct a ridership study;
  • One of the ORCA agencies (Metro or Sound Transit) must sponsor the monorail as an “affiliate transportation service.”
  • The ORCA joint board must unanimously vote to accept it as an affiliate.

Here’s the budget math. Seattle Center receives 2/3 of Monorail revenues, or $550,000 per year, whichever is more. 2015 figures to generate about $900,000 this way. The monorail would have to pay about $51,000 annually as an ORCA participation fee to cover its share of original ORCA rollout costs and $143,000 for overhead, although the payment would go up or down with actual ridership.

Some costs aren’t knowable. A fee to the sponsoring agency is subject to negotiation with ST or Metro. Seattle would also have to pay for any monorail-specific setup costs for the ORCA consortium, in addition to its own equipment and installation costs. Interestingly, ORCA equipment production is already over in preparation for ORCA 2.0, so Seattle would have to borrow reserve equipment from the sponsoring agency.

Seattle would lose control over many aspects of monorail operation. In particular, it would have to adjust its fares into 25 cent increments and adopt the same fare categories — though not the same fares — as the rest of the system. Obviously, any change in the fare structure will affect the revenue position.

The report also has interesting statistics. 44% of the monorail’s total ridership occurs in the tourist and festival months of July and August. There are 2,600 monthly pass holders consistently over the year.

SDOT spokesman Norm Mah says that SDOT hasn’t yet done anything but “preliminary” sponsorship discussions with Metro and ST. They “hope” to hire a consultant in early 2016, and the study would likely complete late next year.

It appears that the costs associated with ORCA are not wildly out of line with the profits the line currently generates, although we don’t know all the costs. Seamless integration with ORCA can only increase ridership and bring a greater portion of ORCA revenue. Of course, any lost revenue comes out of the Seattle Center budget, with implications for the programs there. Here’s hoping that emphasis and goodwill at the highest levels can clear the bureaucratic obstacles and develop the details quickly.

52 Replies to “Monorail ORCA Study Results”

  1. An integrated system is clearly for the greater good. Especially as light rail and streetcars expand, tourists will be increasingly put off by the need to pay a cash fare.

    As far as revenue for Seattle Center goes, a new, permanent attraction that fills an unfilled niche in the city would be better than relying on the monorail. Maybe bringing back a small amusement park would be worthwhile?

    There are a lot more children in the city than there were when we tore the last one down, and the only other year round option is clear down in Federal Way… since people seem more willing to spend on experiences than goods these days, it might be worth investing in more experiences…

    1. Agree, walking through there on most days seems like visiting a Nevada Ghost Town. I used to love walking a block to Sonic games, but I guess the Mayor has other plans for the Key.
      Maybe SDOT can take it over for a new bus base when they take back all the bus routes from Metro. The Gates Foundation is sitting on the last one.

  2. WTF !
    (from the report #5)
    “Equipment for the ORCA system, including Card Readers, are no longer in production or available for purchase because the ORCA Contractor has ceased production due to the anticipated transition to ORCA 2.0.”
    Ahh ???, what about all the existing ORCA hardware in use everyday? Does that become a pile of obsolete junk when the Orca 2 gets rolled out?

      1. Ahhh . . . Planned Obsolescence marches on.
        A better investment might have gone towards a new generation fighter jet or tank.

      2. “he monorail would have to pay about $51,000 annually as an ORCA participation fee to cover its share of original ORCA rollout costs”

        So, for a system which lasted less than a decade, they’re still charging $51K per year to new adopters for the SETUP COSTS? Obviously ORCA was vastly overpriced, and the agencies paid through the nose for something which was worth far less. Whoever did the procurement for it should not be permitted to procure ORCA II.

        I’m pretty sure the payment card systems in other cities were (a) cheaper to set up, and (b) lasted longer, as well as operating better.

    1. So, obviously, that means expansion of RapidRide or Link can’t happen any more either since no more card readers are in production.

      Something smells fishy to me about that.

      1. They likely have the equipment for the new link stations lined up through 2022. East link won’t come live until orca 1.0 is RIP so that won’t be an issue. And it might not be for lynnwood link either.

    2. Why would we care about card readers when the city of Seattle has an entire machine shop set up to make parts for the monorail because no one makes parts for the entire system any more? Tear down the monorail and put a street car or elevated light rail system in its place.

  3. I’m not overly concerned about finding ORCA readers for the monorail. It has two stations. Each has an attendant selling tickets. Give each of them one of those hand-held readers like the boarding assistants use. Infrastructure problem solved.

    The rest is spending more money on consultants than the amount of money the agencies are trying to fleece out of the monorail — an amount of money that is not even a rounding error in Metro’s or ST’s budget — all the while forcing Metro to spend lots of money to meet bus ridership demand between downtown and Lower Queen Anne.

    Triple Facepalm

      1. Quantum mechanics: f(N) is the odds they are going to Westlake. 1-f(N) is the odds they are going to Seattle Center.

    1. Why would fumbling cash off-board matter?

      But you sideways raise an important point: The riders taking the largest hit from the silly red tap keeping the monorail out of the transit network are those for whom navigating the parallel bus system is work (e.g. riders in mobility devices, for which incentivizing them to ride the buses instead of the monorail is … oh I covered that above.)

      1. Brent, main thing discouraging just about everybody from using the Monorail is that virtually nobody arriving from the Airport can find the elevator from the Westlake station mezzanine.
        And when somebody directs them too it, they’d think it was a mop closet if it wasn’t so filthy and disused-looking.

        Give everbody on the committee a mop, a bucket, and a rag, put several very large signs pointing to the elevator, and give Seattle Center its share of the fare revenues. I’d be very surprised if the Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t be glad to help too. Fast.


      2. Here’s an idea: Move the monorail under the streetcar department, which is already an “affiliate” of the ORCA pod, call the monorail a streetcar (just grade-separated), and match up the fares. No extra bookkeeping is needed at the ORCA pod level. SDOT can split up the Seattle Center Line, South Lake Union Line, and First Hill Streetcar Line revenue however it wants.

      3. Mike, I speak from very personal experience yeah there’s a problem navigating from the light rail platforms at Westlake to the streetcar. Which is not cool, there should be clear signage directing folks like I from the Westlake terminal to the streetcar.

        Brent, sounds like a plan.

      4. There should be an underground tunnel from the mezzanine to the streetcar platform. That’s what a city with a comprehensive transit network would do.

        (Of course, such a city would have built something better than a mixed-traffic streetcar in the first place, with an underground platform closer to the others, but I’m just addressing the immediate problem)

      5. I believe that is referred to as the “smellevator”. I have directed so many tourists to that elevator. And then stood awkwardly with them for the interminable wait. And then smiled awkwardly as we were bombarded with the smell. But the ride itself is still a fun thing.

  4. Anybody else remember the days when Metro drivers drove the Monorail? From the times I’ve been on it the last few years, the ride was so rough, and the trains in such shabby condition, it should have been junked a long time ago. Except for one thing:

    This is the city’s elevator to Seattle Center, and literally irreplaceable. Which for sheer shame surpasses only the LINK station at SeaTac Airport. And compare the airport itself to any other one in the advanced world. The city’s two key first-impression generators are so crappy it’s a wonder everybody doesn’t get back on the plane.

    Tourist or business visitors-especially rich ones from China-might chip in to fix the situation. If the City is too cheap to fix it up, I’m sure there are Chinese investors who’ll buy it for as low a price as it deserves, and rapidly turn it into a credit to both our countries and a gold mine for themselves.

    Starting with a usable fair system.

    Mark Dublin

    1. I remember… I believe Metro referred to it as route 689. The cashiers were City of Seattle employees. I believe the agreement ended in the mid-1980s.

      Even back then, when half of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (Metro) Council was comprised of all the Seattle City Council members, Metro and the Monorail couldn’t/wouldn’t coordinate their fare system. I always thought it was strange that metro was driving, but the monorail didn’t accept Metro passes or transfers.

      Three of us, all Orca cardholders, rode the monorail on this past week, transferring from Link (yes, the elevator is difficult to find if you don’t know where it is, and the stairs next to it aren’t very inviting). Seems like accepting Orca cards should be simple.

  5. A 16% hit against revenue. Stop paying the consultants and move along; not going to happen. That stat that almost half the ridership is in July and August pretty much tells you the Monorail is a tourist attraction and not transit.

    Now, when ORCA2 comes on board that’s a horse of a different color. As I understand it it can be set-up just like a debit card so one would hope it could be used/accepted by the Monorail, WSF, Amtrak, etc.

    1. As it stands now, it’s a tourist attraction, yes. With the current fare scheme, I can completely understand. That tells us nothing about what will happen if it’s brought into Orca; in fact, I’m fairly sure local ridership will boom.

    2. I almost accepted Bernie’s position that it’s just a tourist attraction. Then Brent reminded me of all the times I’ve take a bus to Seattle Center because I could use my transfer there. Although nowadays I’m not so stingy; I take the monorail for the $2.25 experience, which is a fraction of what I spend on a movie or lunch.

    3. The monorail is not transit. It is a fundraising attraction for the Seattle Center.

      It could easily become transit by being integrated into the ORCA pod, and getting lots of daily local ridership. I stand by my math from a year ago that it would also become a more lucrative fundraiser for the Seattle Center.

    4. I think loss of revenue and added costs may be the highest deterrent to joining the Monorail to LINK. Right now, they have a really simple (cheap) setup, their fare collection is off the shelf hardware (cash register, off the shelf movie theater ticket machine), with a cashier at one end, or both on busy days. How do you integrate ORCA into that? you install a reader at each ticket booth and require someone to be issued a paper ticket? You convert the whole line to PoP and install TVMs for cash/credit fares as well? Do you accept only epurse, or do you take transfers and passes and how do you handle the revenue “apportionment” is the term I have heard used for who gets how much $. Do you leave your current fare or make it match Metro, etc.? What kinds of hardware do you install if you are going to PoP, same equipment as Seattle streetcar or Link? The pay stations are relatively cheap, the bit link TVMs are VERY VERY Expensive (over 100k?) Who pays for the hardware? I doubt added ORCA fares alone would generate enough extra revenue to pay for it all.

      1. There is no need to overcomplicate.

        The rider would walk up and tap his card on the reader, while the attendant watches. The beep indicates the fare is paid. The attendant doesn’t care whether it was e-purse, a pass, or some combo.

        Cash tickets can continue as they always have. There is room to do both. Indeed, accepting ORCA will make the line move much faster.

        If someone wants to buy or reload an ORCA card, she/he can take the elevator down to the Link station mezzanine.

        Matching the monorail fares to the Link/Streetcar fares simply requires raising the youth fare to $1.50, accepting LIFT, letting 5-year-olds ride free with a fare-paying adult, and letting youth 13-18 pay the youth fare.

        The formula for the fare revenue split is well-established.

      2. Apparently Seattle got cheated on the ORCA equipment, because it should not cost this much for this low quality.

      3. Sending people downstairs is not customer friendly at all. really, ORCA is customer unfriendly due to all the ways its been implemented. Fare rules aside, general support for the system is difficult with many transit facilities lacking a TVM, various tap-in and tap-out for certain services, tap in only for others, some buses you tap in on the platform, others you can on the platform or on the coach, and yet others just on the coach, passes not being universally accepted, not even transfers universally given (ahem WSDOT). than all the different fare rules and other complexities (one zone vs two, peak vs. off peak, Express fares, LIFT fares, Youth fares, Sr./Disabled fares) certain services not taking ORCA at all (some ADA paratransit services), and if you add monorail in only as epurse and not taking transfers or passes its just another complexity to a system that’s already too complex.

    5. It’s a tourist attraction because it makes no sense for ORCA users. I can’t transfer from ST or Metro so why would I pay a second time? If I could transfer I’d ride it all the time.

  6. I’d ride it every day just looking for lunch options, which during any season but summer time, Seattle Center is sadly lacking in. And with more riders they’d have a reason to do the much needed maintenance. It’s about time they adopt orca

    1. I once heard the monorail described as a train ride between two food courts. Perhaps with fare integration, business at the Seattle Center food court will pick up.

  7. Simply allow wallet use…not unlimited pass use. Just like the ferry.

    Elephant in the room: the monorail is far superior to any other form of transit but yet….sits on a shelf. Why? Because it doesn’t affect car use.

    1. That was my point exactly. Leave it pay as you go, like the WSF. As it sits now though the cost for Seattle Center doesn’t make it worth while. If ORCA2 lets you use it like a debit card then you’re talking.

      Yes, ridership would be up if ORCA was accepted but what percentage of a transfer would go to Seattle Center? I posit that virtually all the increased ridership would be from transfers. And, if someone did use their ORCA card just to ride the Monorail would Seattle Center still have to kick back a portion of the fare for “transfer equity” on top of the onerous transaction charges?

      1. There’s also riders who live partially up the hill, north of Seattle Center who work downtown. Walking down a few flights of stairs to the Monorail is probably significantly faster than riding a bus, and depending on one’s precise living location, maybe not all that much more walking either.

        However, if the employer downtown is paying for your bus pass, the bus becomes free, while the $2.25 per trip on the Monorail really does start to add up if you ride it round trip, every day. So, you might take the bus anyway, even if the trip takes twice as long.

      2. The refusal of WSF to accept PugetPass is pushing families to bring their cars or drive around on land. They could charge a higher walk-on fare to soak the tourists, while giving regular riders a break by accepting PugetPass. They could accept LIFT without accepting transfers, but then, they still have to accept the monthly passes, and it isn’t much of a bargain when the passenger gets charged heavily for the boat ride on top of the cost of the connecting buses.

        Regardless, the situation with WSF (expensive alternatives) is different than with the monorail (cheap, but slower alternatives, tying up scarce Metro resources).

      3. The relevant question is not whether *new* riders would all be transferring (which would all be additional revenue for the monorail), but whether a substantial number of current riders are already transferring, and how that math would work out.

        Even if the monorail does not turn a profit (and I’m still pretty sure it will turn a profit) from accepting PugetPass and transfers, I’d rather have that transit option open to the masses who don’t want to pay an upcharge than maximize monorail profit by keeping regular riders off of it.

    2. Mark, I’d agree with you if you said that the Seattle Center Monorail is a far superior mode of transit to connect Seattle Center with Westlake Station, Westlake Center, and its pedestrian plaza. Most important, because it’s already there.

      But also, because it does run on an elevated structure, allowing a traffic- and weather- proof ride of only several minutes. Like I said: it’s an excellent horizontal elevator. There’s definitely no question that to be fast and reliable, transit has to be grade-separated for the entire length of its run, elevated, underground, or on a completely-reserved right of way.

      But if single-rail running had any advantages, the world would have many more monorail systems. The problem is that by the time you’ve built the pillars, you might as well add the other rail. For monorail operation switches are a real problem. During the Monorail campaign ten years ago, I think to many people, “monorail” simply meant “elevated.”

      I think that the really disgusting thing about the way the City Council is how much complicated effort is being devoted only to the question of apportioning fare revenue. For Pete’s sake, this is an important asset to the city, and it’s falling apart. Flip a coin!

      If I was still a constituent of any council member involved in this, I’d be organizing a recall campaign against an effort confirming the city’s well-deserved reputation for endless discussion of the piddling while ignoring the roaring flood of escaping common sense. The only class of world that Seattle currently represents is an asteroid the size of golf ball.

      Mark Dublin

      1. ” The problem is that by the time you’ve built the pillars, you might as well add the other rail. ”

        Good summary of the problem with monorail technology!

      2. No, that’s a summary of failed attempts to placate NIMBYs who wanted single-tracking through their neighborhood.

  8. What is required as part of this ridership study that isn’t covered already with the FTA filings?

  9. I would love it if the Monorail was part if ORCA (even just epurse). I want to know more about the 2,600 monthly pass holders.

    1. There’s a fair number of possibilities. Among them:

      1. Living in Lower Queen Anne and walking to the monorail, and then transferring to Link or ST Express? This avoids the slow bus service and the transfer penalty of going between ST and Metro, if you never wind up using Metro anyway.

      2. Sort of the exact opposite of above: work somewhere near Lower Queen Anne and live somewhere along Link or near ST Express or park and ride spot, and use the monorail to get from Link / ST Express to close to work.

      An adult monthly pass for the monorail is $45. So, if you aren’t using Metro on a regular basis, this is quite a bit cheaper than buying a Metro monthly pass to cover the last mile between ST Express / Link and Seattle Center.

      1. If you have a monthly pass for ST it works on Metro, too, so you effectively ride the last mile on the bus free. The monorail does cost a little extra for ST users.

        But $45/mo. extra is not that much on the scale of transportation expenses. It’s two or three days of downtown parking. Or it’s similar to the premium someone living in Edmonds would pay for a one-seat ride downtown over a Lynnwood transfer. For that price you get a reliable trip and a dry transfer. If I worked in or near Seattle Center and lived along Link I’d strongly consider it.

Comments are closed.