Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson
Seattle City Councilmember
Rob Johnson

During a joint city/county council meeting dealing with transit last week, freshman Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson raised a good point: Fare enforcement officers have been giving warnings to pay, and encouraging riders to get an ORCA card and use it, but have not been giving out free ORCA cards.

The primary excuse for charging for the card is to make sure riders don’t treat them as disposable. I don’t think giving away ORCA cards to each rider being given a warning to pay counts as encouraging that rider to treat the card as disposable. Sound Transit and Metro still haven’t given a good answer as to why the cards cost $5, as opposed to $2-3 to merely cover what the vendor charges.

Thank you, Councilmember Johnson, for bringing this common-sense idea forward.

While they are at it, fare enforcement officers could give out the ORCA LIFT (low-income ORCA) brochures, since a substantial portion of those getting warnings qualify, and the train goes within a couple blocks of the Public Health office on S Jackson St, just east of Metro’s headquarters.

ORCA LIFT brochure

I have ridden a bunch of trains in the past couple weeks, mostly for research purposes, and have yet to see any of the brochure racks stocked with ORCA LIFT brochures. Granted, they are out-of-date, with no mention that ORCA LIFT is now honored on ST Express and Sounder. The simple solution is to keep stocking Link with the old brochures, and stock ST Express and Sounder with new brochures. If ST wants to hold off on that print run until the current supply is almost exhausted, making the brochures available on the Link racks will enable that to happen faster.

60 Replies to “Suggestion of the Week: Free ORCA Card With Your Fare Warning”

  1. I also think they should give out ORCA youth cards, which has a lower fare, to reduce the chance of fare evasion in the future compared to full-fare ORCA cards.

  2. I certainly like the idea of handing out the LIFT brochures but giving out a free ORCA card as a reward for not paying the fare seems like it might upset people who played by the rules and purchased their ORCA card (and fare) ahead of time for a cost penalty of $5. Seems the ‘insider tip’ for newcomers will be to ride ’til you’re caught then they’ll give you $5 for your trouble.

    1. Everyone gets one free warning on Link. That won’t change. The fine will kick in the second time the rider is caught. That won’t change.

      As someone who has suffered enough from change fumbling, I want ORCA in rider’s hands. That won’t change.

    2. It doesn’t have to be just people who don’t pay… fare enforcement officers could give out ORCA cards to anyone that shows a paper ticket.

      1. Friday night in the DSTT in the ID stop, the ST customer service reps were doing exactly that. If you had a paper ticket, they offered you an ORCA.

    3. I think people have more compassion than that. I saw a kid get a warning this Tuesday, Poor guy’s face was getting redder and redder as the enforcement officer worked toward him, and he kept shifting around uncomfortably. I just felt really bad for the situation he was in, and would have been thrilled to see the awkward conversation with the officer be replaced by offering some constructive help to avoid this problem in the future.

      FWIW, the enforcement officer was extremely polite and compassionate about the whole thing.

    4. How do we know someone is caught the second time, and is it on the fly so that fare enforcement knows quickly who to warn and who to fine? Its a genuine question, as I have been very OCD about tapping on and off.

      1. They take your picture or a picture of your ID the first time so they may have a list of names and dates to watch for.

  3. Would people still be fined when given a free Orca card? Maybe you give them a card with $10 loaded on it, and then a fine for $15. That way it’s the same cost as buying a new card w/ some money on it, but the person is still getting a fine. Having some sort of a fine is important because
    1) There needs to be some sort of penalty, or it’s not enforcement. In this case, the first fine is just a “warning” because the fine nets with the card given.
    2) The fine paperwork can allow ST to distinguish between repeat offenders and people who honestly just lost / forgot their card.

    Handing out ORCA LIFT brochures is also a great idea.
    It’s like a speeding ticket – if you catch someone speeding on a road 3 times in a month, the officer can check the system, see this person has gotten a bunch of warnings, and knows to given them a proper ticket.

    1. Not clear from the post or Rob’s comments, but in context it seemed like it would be a temporary effort to aid ORCA migration and cash/transfer related issues.

    2. Rob’s suggestion is a temporary bridge. I want a permanent best practice.

      The primary beneficiaries of giving someone a free ORCA card is not the recipient, but everyone else riding the same bus with her/him in the future.

  4. This encourages breaking the law. It basically says that anyone can ride for free until they get caught, and when they do get caught they won’t get punished and will in fact get rewarded.

    Not the brightest idea. I would never buy an Orca card if I knew I could get one for free this way.

    Give a warning and a brochure explaining how to get an Orca Card and/or Orca Lift. Don’t actively encourage fare evasion.

      1. How about tying into PayByPhone so that people can tap their ORCA on any parking meter and pay for parking in seconds without phone fumbling?

      2. ORCA 2.0 is supposed to be account-based, with card and smart-phone-payment options. Yes, the phone still has to be fumbled to interact with the card reader, in order to validate the payment.

        I will be sticking with a card, not just to avoid fumbling with setting up a payment each time I board, but also because I have a pass (which might not work on smart phones).

        Smart-phone payment will probably be most popular with tourists, especially if set up in numerous languages.

      3. Quite a number of people here use TriMet’s phone ticket system. I probably would if I had a phone new enough to be compatible with the system.

    1. How about a free ORCA card from any TVM if you put a pass or e-purse on it. Then there wouldn’t be any inequality or incentive to cheat. However, getting a warning puts you one step away from a fine costing a month’s worth of rides, which can easily heppen if you’re thinking about something else and don’t see an ORCA reader to remind you (because some of them are off to the side or on a different wall). In that context, the $5 cost of the card is the smallest problem.

    2. So true. How about treating people equally under the law? There shouldn’t even be a first-time warning. An ORCA is not the only way to pay. And riding Link is not some unalienable right.

      1. Paper tickets and day passes are also sold for Link and Sounder. They are yet another expensive work-around caused by the $5 card fee.

      2. Gregg, I’ve gotten a warning before, even though I had a valid pass covering the highest-possible fare, plus a valid transfer. I accidentally double-tapped.

        The single warning is done even-handedly. Everyone gets one, and then faces a fine if they mess up again within the next 365 days. It definitely has imperfections, but it works, for the most part.

        If you ride enough, you too will eventually mess up the taps, and then you won’t be taking this absolutist law-and-order line when the FOE catches you. When he does, he won’t be swayed by logic, either. They do things by the book, even when the book doesn’t make sense.

      3. Brent, I ride two modes on Sound Transit every single work day so trying to insinuate that my position is based on ignorance doesn’t fly.

        I think the warnings are undeserved because there are signs on the platforms that serve as a warning but that’s a minor issue to me. However, rewarding people for willfully breaking laws is beyond dumb. That is the exact type of thinking that empowers those entitled brats I’ve seen who verbally berate bus drivers who dare to ask them for proof of payment.

        And no, I would not change my position on fare enforcement if I ever got fined. I take responsibility for my actions and don’t believe Sound Transit or anybody else owes me some kind of break.

      4. So, I should have gotten a $124 fine for double-tapping, even though I had a monthly pass and a valid transfer? That’s no minor issue. That would be theft, by Sound Transit, in my book. That would be fairness in yours. I’m glad ST doesn’t play by your book, or people who have made their best-faith effort to pay (and indeed did pay) would be afraid of riding Link after getting such a fine, or hearing about others getting such a fine. Multiple riders on this blog, who all pay and have used ORCA thousands of times, have gotten warnings. That you have not is just luck.

        But if you do get a warning, feel free to give ST $124, since you think that is the right thing to do.

        But I digress.

        Giving someone an ORCA Card is not a reward. It is an attempt to get them to stop using cash and transfers on the buses. It may get them to start paying with an ORCA card. On net, it will nudge more riders into paying, and it will not incentivize anyone who wasn’t already dodging fares to start doing so, since the warnings and fines will be unaffected.

        But, as pointed out up-thread, giving out free ORCAs to people buying tickets (during commute hours, not so much for special events) will probably be even more effective at transitioning riders to ORCA. The most effective thing to hand someone during a warning is info on where to get the various discount fare cards.

        The real fare fraud is being committed by Metro, by accepting long-expired transfers.

  5. I was under the impression official warnings were only for people with an ORCA card who didn’t tap on (since the ORCA can track the warning). So who is the target audience here? People who don’t have ORCA and aren’t buying tickets? People who do have ORCA and are trying to sneak free rides? People who do have ORCA and accidentally forgot to tap? Anyone in the latter 2 categories doesn’t benefit from this proposal. And should we really be giving free ORCA cards to people who are blatantly evading fares? Sure, give them information. Explain where to get an ORCA card or how the ORCA lift program works. But don’t give fare evaders free cards.

    1. Warnings are for all of the above. They take you off the train and record your ID and may take your picture; that’s how they recognize you again. ORCA cards aren’t a reliable indicator of a person over time since you can give it to somebody, lose it, get another card, or have a family pile of cards and take any one when you need one. Johnson’s suggestion is clearly for people without a card because people with a card don’t need another one.

      “should we really be giving free ORCA cards to people who are blatantly evading fares?”

      That assumes the cards should cost money. An ORCA card is not a product like a pack of gum or a book that you exchange money for because you want it. It’s part of the payment mechanism they chose to use. They chose, not you chose. Banks don’t charge $5 for ATM cards. Or $5 again when it wears and you have to replace it, or to transfer the balance to another card.

    1. Or just making Orca cards free? How about for the average guy who doesn’t have time to drive all the way up to Seattle for some special “event”. I use transit when it makes sense, but this is rare. On average, four times per year, maybe. An average trip for me requires use of a park-and-ride or rides on three different providers (PT, ST, and Metro) to get anywhere useful. Thanks, politicians, for creating such a lovely patchwork!

    2. The events would be in all counties that use ORCA, not just Seattle. There is an ORCA-mobile that goes around to senior centers and places once a month or so to help people sign up. Those cards may be free. They just need to scale up their existing program. Or better yet, just lower the fee at the TVMs.

  6. $5 fee to get reasonably priced transfers. But then, the chip in the card stops working after a few years… and you have to pay another $5 for a new card and go through the hassle of transferring your balance which is a nightmare in and of itself, thanks to the lovely staff at Metro or Pierce Transit. I miss the days of paper transfers for the occasional rider.

    1. Let me get this straight. The chip in my Orca card stops working. I pay the fare every time I ride. I have a lot of money (because of an abrupt job change a few years ago) tied up on my Orca card that I have to pay a $10 fee to get back, so I end up leaving the money on the card. And when the chip stops working, I have to pay $5 to get the card replaced. And we are going to give out free Orca cards to people who evade paying the fare? Seriously??? Please, just get rid of Pierce Transit and the portion of King County Metro south of SR 518, and let us stop subsidizing the Seattle-Bellevue transit service out here. The transit down here is so stinking pathetic that it is useless to most of us. Meanwhile, up north, you get transit that functions well for many commuters. Bad enough that I have to subsidize a system that literally provides zero service. Our only neighborhood bus route is paid for by the city in conjunction with ST. ZERO Metro service. But now we’re going to give out freebies that I have to pay for to people who blatantly avoid paying. Maybe it’s time to go to a fare-free system, so at least I could occasionally reap the benefits of the system.

    2. I heard the cards have a 5-year average lifetime and I’ve been wondering what it would be like when everyone has to get their card exchanged, and whether there would be a huge uproar about the $5 exchange fee, especially since it will be a surprise to most people. And it involves talking to somebody at a window, so there would have to be enough staff and enough windows. But I still have my original card and it’s still working, and it’s been what, ten years now? Once I thought the card was getting weak because it was having a hard time at several readers, but it hasn’t happened for several months so it could just as likely have been the readers.

      1. ORCA cards were first made available to the public in Aoril 2009. So that’s 7 years, not 10. For the first 9 months there was no card fee so that people would get them. That free period included when the original Central Link line started. The cards my family got back then all work fine, including the ones used daily. We save others for guests.

      2. I’ve also had my card for seven years. I keep it safe in my wallet, including when I tap. It works just fine.

      3. I’ve heard this 5 year life as well, and I’m not sure where it comes from. Isn’t this an RFID card that powers the circuitry by the antenna on the card? So, there’s nothing on the card that can really wear out with normal use.

        I got mine when they were mailing them out free of charge to any USA address. As of February it still worked fine.

        I use a nice transit card holder that fits the card really well and keeps it fairly well protected.

    1. Up to a certain point proof of payment is less expensive. Mostly because fare gates require station agents to guard the gates and resolve problems.

      1. How about if you ride public transit you pay for a ticket or get an Orca card like everybody else. Let’s not reward bad behavior!!! I know there are people who forget to tap and that’s why there is a warning for 1st time offenders, It’s embarrassing and it shouldn’t happen again. But there are others that try and ride for free. Buy a ticket or don’t ride.

      2. All I said is up to a certain level of ridership proof of payment and fare inspectors are cheaper than fare gates. I know some would like to see fare gates, but they just take money from other things and don’t eliminate fare evasion.

    2. Real subways don’t have at-grade stations, with long lengths of easily-jumpable fences.

  7. This isn’t a horrible idea, except that, as others have pointed out, making this policy would effectively be saying that actually buying an ORCA card is for chumps. The cognoscenti will simply ride for free until they are given an ORCA card. Not only does this save them 5 bucks for the card, it also saves them fares,

    As far as I can tell, ORCAs are the most expensive transit card in the world [yes, I know that other systems charge higher deposits for cards, or require you to buy a card with product costing more than 5 bucks, but ORCA appears to be the most expensive bare card]. This probably is an obstacle to their adoption, although, by my reckoning, there are at least two more important reasons that ORCA has poor adoption.

    First, ORCAs are too damn hard to get, especially for people who don’t frequent downtown Seattle. This is especially true of products like youth ORCAs. There needs to be much broader and better publicized set of vendors, and they need to be able to sell full range of products.

    Second, for many use cases the ORCA buys you nothing. Unless you have a pass, or are transferring between agencies, it’s at best neutral. In practice, given the way that Metro implements paper transfers using ORCA often costs you money. In East King, ORCA adoption is very high. Perhaps the fact that fro many Eastsiders, the peak cash fare to downtown Seattle is almost twice as much as the ORCA fare plays a role.

    In my opinion, when ranking reasons for disappointing ORCA adoption, the high cost of ORCA cards is a distant third. I doubt that, in isolation, making ORCA cards free would move the adoption rate meaningfully. At this point we need to address the real problems. We need to make it easier to obtain ORCAs, and we need to eliminate penalties to their use. I propose the following two measures.

    1) Aggressively recruit new vendors for ORCA cards, and make it easy for them to sell the full range of products. Perhaps allow third party ORCA vendors to retain a portion of the ORCA fee to cover their costs.

    2) Phase out cash transfers. In the mean time, retrain operators of the importance of accurately tearing off transfers, and make it clear that persistently being overgenerous in this area is a disciplinable offense.

    1. What ST was doing this week, having customer service people give free ORCA cards to people who had just bought tickets, would fall in the category of saying that actually buying an ORCA card is for chumps, in an even more real when than Johnson’s suggestion. But hey, if someone just forwent the opportunity to pay $5 for a card, I’ll buy a little inductive reasoning that they probably will continue to forgo the opportunity. ST is writing off the $5 for the sake of operational savings if that person continues to ride regularly. It’s a smart move, especially when not widely advertised, to avoid offending anyone’s pointless sense of entitlement to make everyone else pay $5 for a card (though they probably got theirs for free through an employer).

      Making it a limited-time promo will hopefully dampen the chump message.

    2. $5 is expensive, but not the most in the world. OV-chipkaart in the Netherlands is 7.50 Euro ($8.55). Rejsekort in Denmark is 50 kroner ($7.65) for a personal, resident only card, 80 for anonymous ($12.55). Neither have refundable deposits as far as I can tell.

  8. Johnson’s proposal isn’t weak because of the reasons stated above.

    Nobody is going to decide not to get an ORCA card just because they heard you might get one if you can get caught and threatened with a $124 fine. Nobody, including the guys above claiming they would do it. Nobody. That is a preposterous argument, guys. Be mad about paying $5 for a card, if you will, when you actually got your card through your employer for free (Really, guys, nice try), but don’t blame those who manage to get one for free, just like you did. Get mad it whoever decided to charge $5 for the card.

    The $5 fee has already chased away a lot of customers, without any relationship to fare enforcement practices. The $5 fee was one of the most expensive ideas to be implemented on our transit services — not the card fee mind you, but the millions and millions in operational waste and lost ridership it has caused.

    Johnson’s proposal is weak for a different reason:

    The vast majority of recipients of free ORCA cards from the FOEs will not end up using them for long. Most will be qualified for the ORCA LIFT, RRFP, or youth card. Most of the remainder will be tourists. Since the RRFPs require special production technology that FOEs can’t carry, and the LIFT cards require qualification that can’t be done in front of a crowd on a bus, the most useful cards for FOEs to carry would be youth cards, which they can hand out after checking the age of the person getting a warning.

    Go ahead, guys. Argue that the kids should get a job so that they can fork over $5 for an ORCA card (while you got yours for free). You are missing a much larger point.

    1. It doesn’t matter if the $.50 or $50, it’s no excuse to justify stealing transit service. This councilman (and apparently the article writer) think that people should be rewarded for theft. Link is not a charity and not every single service in this area needs to have a social justice operating clause applied to it. If there are poor people who can’t afford the card, direct them to resources that can help. If the fee is too expensive, work to get it dropped through the proper channels.

      “Nobody is going to decide not to get an ORCA card just because they heard you might get one if you can get caught and threatened with a $124 fine. Nobody, including the guys above claiming they would do it. Nobody. ”

      Wow, that’s quite absolute. Have you seen the Facebook group where they post the transfer color of the day? People WILL find a way to avoid paying for something, whether it’s a lowly turnstile jumper on an Enron executive.

      1. A one-time expense for an ORCA card that works indefinitely is not the same thing as a transfer that changes every day.

      2. I’ve pointed out that Facebook group several times. They aren’t doing it to get $5 ORCA cards. They are doing it to avoid paying fare. I don’t think anyone should get off from a warning or fine just because they pull out a paper transfer. ST should not honor the paper transfers. Period. And they don’t.

        Metro should stop using them, but they won’t. Bad social justice arguments trump good social justice outcomes, like more and faster service for everyone.

        But let’s not make ridiculous arguments, in pursuit of getting rid of the paper transfers, or impugning someone’s motives because he finds your argument unconvincing. (And there is no logic underlying the argument that people who would have otherwise paid $5 for an ORCA card will decline to do so for an opportunity to get a free one by moving one double-tap away from a $124 fine. They may refuse to pay for other reasons, but not to get a free $5 card they have gone out of their way not to use)

        If you want to get rid of the $5 fee, don’t whack down every other attempt to give the cards out for free. That is clearly counterproductive.

    2. Fare enforcement officers wouldn’t be able to hand out youth cards just by checking ID. Youth cards are coded with the youth’s date of birth. On that person’s 19th birthday, the card starts charging an adult fare. (Really! I tried it!). BTW, that’s why a youth card can’t be handed down to little bro or sis. You need to keep your own when you grow up. Youth cards issued by schools are more generic, but they’re available only through a business account with the district.
      In any case you can get a youth card for your kid by mail. Just print out the order form & mail in a copy her/his birth certificate. If you’re near a transit customer service office in any of the 4 counties you don’t need your kid with you, just proof of age. In fact you can ask someone to do this for you.

      1. Thanks! I’ve always been curious about the 19th birthday cut-off, and whether you can buy a monthly pass for the month in which you turn 19.

  9. I received a mailer for a free orca card just recently. I signed up on the website and got it. I already have one through my employer but don’t like keeping a purse on it. However, now I can’t find the site. Anybody know what it is?

  10. Give ORCA cards to people who illegally ride the train with out a ticket/ORCA, thus encouraging people to ride the trains with out paying.

    The worst excuse I overheard one day was someone was tagging on and off twice thinking they were also paying for their buddy (effectively cancelling their trips and paying nothing), the fare enforcement guy were going to let them off with a warning, but rather than accept they were doing it wrong they then proceeded to argue the balance on the ORCA card not being right with the fare enforcement guy for five minutes.

    $5 fee encourages you to not lose it. Stop whining about it, its cheaper than bad coffee from Starbucks. The TIME the ORCA card saves YOU is worth it. And on buses everyone else’s time because you’re not standing there trying to feed those crumpled up one dollar bills into the machine.

    If paying for and using an ORCA card is too hard for everyone let ST levy some of the regions sales or property taxes and make using the trains FREE.

  11. My employer provides an ‘unlimited’ ORCA pass to each employee. So, unlimited taps on busses, light rail, you name it. A co-worker forgot to tap his card and fare enforcement fined him. Does this make good sense? He was holding the pass in his hand and just didn’t tap it. The card has been paid for by our employer for a years’ worth of unlimited use. Can fare enforcement scan the card and determine this? I’m genuinely asking. It doesn’t seem to me like fining him in this case was the best choice, but that’s what happened.
    I get the argument that if we let my co-worker ‘get away’ with this, we have to let everyone get away with it – but I really don’t think it’s valid in this case.

  12. No way. I am someone who struggles to make sure I get enough money on my ORCA to pay for all my trips. If I have no money I do not ride. Simple as that. If you do not pay you are a thief pure and simple.

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