The Regional Fare Coordination Board (ORCA Joint Board) has been working toward a new version of the ORCA product to be rolled out in 2021, currently dubbed “Next Generation ORCA”. As part of the new product, London-style daily caps on fares were high on the list of elements to be considered for development, with software development to commence in 2018.
The Regional Transit Committee, a panel of elected officials from around the county that has some authority to block council decisions on policies covering King County Metro, recently gave its green light to a report from a 2016 Fare Forum convened by the ORCA Joint Board. While referring the report to the RTC was not mandatory, it is a common practice to keep that panel in the loop.
Three major recommendations came out of the 2016 Fare Forum:
• Eliminate zone-based fares in order to reduce Next Generation ORCA system development time and costs, reduce customer confusion, reduce operator interactions, and improve boarding times.
• Eliminate trip-based peak fares but allow for time-based peak fares in the ORCA system design, in order to reduce Next Generation ORCA system development time and costs, increase regional fare coordination, and make fares simpler for customers to understand.
• Not to pursue fare capping because it could increase Next Generation ORCA system design complexity and costs and is expected to negatively impact agency revenue.
This recommendation not only means the ORCA pod does not plan to institute day caps, but also that it will not even develop the software to make it an option. The intent is not to preclude such a feature, but developing it would cost additional money down the road.
King County Metro is well on the way to eliminating zones, with a proposal expected from the Executive’s office sometime this summer in line with the recent surveying on two options for doing so.
Sound Transit could easily move to a fare system for ST Express buses that charges more by distance and separates limited-stop routes from true inter-county express routes like 510, 511, 513, 586, 590, 592, 594, and 595. Getting rid of zone resets for passengers boarding in the Central Business District would help move buses a little bit faster through downtown.
Having Community Transit eliminate zones would have no practical effect on downtown bus speed, as all the commuter buses charge commuter fares. It would have a nuisance factor for riders taking intra-county trips on the commuter routes though. The county-line surcharge would presumably go away after most of the commuter routes are reorganized to terminate at Lynnwood’s light rail station in 2023. So, expect Community Transit to also eliminate zones … in 2023, assuming attempts to eliminate $1 billion in federal funding don’t delay line construction.
The report is not clear whether paper fare products would need to fall in line with time-based peak surcharges instead of trip-based peak surcharges. However, King County Metro is the only agency currently using a peak surcharge. The county council could make the point moot by (1) adopting the all-day flat-fare proposal or (2) eliminating paper transfers. Other agencies have expressed interest in the ability to apply a peak surcharge, so the software feature may still be developed even if no agency has stated it will use it.
The current ORCA vendor contract ends in 2021. Next Generation ORCA is expected to be account-based, with the ability to use smart phones and similar technology to pay fares, get transfers, and buy passes good across participating agencies, possibly including Washington State Ferries. WSF is evaluating the possibilities, but has to maintain 70% farebox recovery by state law, and would need the approval of the Washington State Transportation Commission for any fare change.