In a press release absolutely buried by other news Thursday, Mayor Murray proposed that the Monorail start accepting ORCA. Back in 2014, STB readers pressured Seattle to study the feasibility of accepting ORCA cards. When that study finished, the city launched a ridership study which completed last April.

The ridership study assumes that the monorail accepts both E-purse and passes. Ridership increases between 155,000 and 346,500 annually (or 7-16%). However, various costs to participate in ORCA and lower average payments result in a first-year revenue hit between $359,000 and $660,000. By the third year, the net effect will be somewhere between a loss of $253,000 and a gain of $122,000. These estimates do not include startup fees that might be assessed by the sponsoring agency, in this case King County Metro.

Mayor Murray proposed a 25 cent fare increase, on top of one already planned for October, to make up for the loss. This would bring the one-way adult fare to $2.75, and the release expressed cautious optimism that it would result in a modest net financial gain.

If all goes well, the Council will approve a budget that includes funding for SDOT staff to complete negotiations with Metro to resolve the remaining issues. Mayoral spokesman Will Lemke doesn’t anticipate big problems because “not a lot of money is moving around.” In an email, Metro said they “see no immediate concerns” with the idea, although the agreement would have to be approved by the ORCA Joint Board.

SDOT wasn’t able to immediately produce a best-case estimate on when riders might first tap onto the monorail, but my sense is that sometime in late 2018 or 2019 is a reasonable guess.

The monorail is one of the few truly traffic-separated transit options in the region. Until Link gets there in 2035, the monorail may be the fastest way to many places beyond downtown when Mercer and Denny are clogged. Also, chances of the NBA returning to Key Arena are climbing, putting stress on roads in neighborhoods that have grown immensely since the Sonics left.

A 250-passenger train leaves each station every 10 minutes, with 5-minute headways at seasonal peak times. It operates 7:30am to 11pm on weekdays and 8:30am to 11pm on weekends.

“Seattle Center is becoming more connected to downtown, and the Monorail is the best path between these two important hubs,” said Mayor Murray.

35 Replies to “ORCA for Monorail Moves Forward”

  1. I’ve ridden the monorail a couple of times. Today, much more time is spent waiting in line to pay the fare than actually moving. In fact, I would even argue that the number of people the trains can carry is limited more by the capacity of the ticket booth than the capacity of the trains, themselves. One nice thing about a 2-minute ride is, even if you have to stand, it’s no big deal – it would be no worse than standing on the train at SeaTac to get to the N-gates.

    If I could just walk on quickly, with an Orca tap, without needing to wait in line, I would definitely use it more.

  2. I’m assuming the regular and youth fares will both go up 50 cents over two rounds of increases, while the senior/disabilities fare will stay at $1, to match all the payer categories to Metro’s fares. There is no low-income fare yet, and it will likely have to wait until ORCA acceptance is rolled out.

    Hopefully any rehabilitation work on the ticket areas won’t stall the rollout. Giving the booth attendants hand-held ORCA readers, and then having a second faretaker hold it during the peak periods, seems pretty straightforward.

    That 7-16% ridership increase seems conservative. I hope they are prepared for a much larger increase than that.

    Are there any buses that make sense to re-route to serve Seattle Center Station?

    1. It’s a one stop shuttle that barely reaches into Downtown, so I doubt it’s worth it. The additional transfer(s) is not worth the hassle.

    2. Ideally, this would be done in such a way that Orca payers do not get stuck in line behind cash payers.

    1. Possible, but expensive. Remember, it has to have two platforms, and a boarding user has to know which one to use for which direction. Unless loops at both ends are built so that each track becomes one-way, a Battery/Cedar station will always be problematic. And that’s a shame because it’s directly parallel to the largest cluster of housing in Belltown.

      1. They exist, but they’re quite clunky. And there’s the possibility that the train can run off the guidebeam in a “facing point” approach if the moving beam is aligned with the other track.

        That would be the situation at both terminals.

      2. Find some pics before, during, and after the massive amount of demolition and construction that, in addition to the DSTT relocated the south terminal of the Monorail to a much worse place:

        The side of Westlake Center, which was also being built. But point being that I seem to remember a temporary station near the Westin Hotel. Find some images and the plans, and we might be able to do a permanent station.

        Mark Dublin

      3. For the amount of money this would cost, sdot could tear down the monorail and use the row for a streetcar from westlake to the needle, with a station at 5th/bell.

      4. But, Jack, wouldn’t that get the streetcar caught in traffic at least from cross-streets?

      5. The entire point of the monorail is that it avoids traffic during times when 5th would likely be swamped with either commuters or Seattle Center event traffic.

      6. Eventually, when Ballard Link opens, I would love to see the Monorail replaced with a Seattle version of High Line park in New York. It would be very popular. In the meantime, the more people that can make use of the monorail as a train, the better.

        If Orca integration leads to overcrowding, they should be able to mitigate it by ripping out most of the seats for more standing room. A 2-minute ride is not long enough for seats to be needed (except for the elderly and disabled).

    2. Not with signal priority. The most difficult change would be 5th Ave becoming a 2-way street between broad and denny.

      1. You’d need to give it fairly absolute signal priority like Link, and that’d mess up traffic in South Lake Union as well as delay a number of buses on Battery, Bell, and Blanchard. Why not improve the grade-separated route we have?

      2. Cost. This line would have higher ridership at grade. And I do not think it will delay cross traffic with good signal priority.

        But the monorail is already built. The only improvement that makes sense is orca integration, and then wait for the Ballard train to serve the center and Denny at dexter. Still no bell town stop.

      3. If we actually built a stupid streetcar on 5th Avenue instead of just making signal priority work for all the other transit already heading that way I would rage-quit Seattle.

      4. The Monorail for what it’s always been: A linear elevator providing a fast direct connection between Downtown Seattle and a major exhibition ground. And maybe a stadium. And a neighborhood needing much faster transit. Also providing a short vertical elevator ride to the regional transit system.

        With its elevated structure already in place. Needing, like everything else in our country, about thirty years’ deferred maintenance. What possible benefit would we get for the expense of tearing it down? Let alone losing it?


      5. You might be able to get CCC extended up 1st to Seattle Center, but there is exactly zero political support behind tearing down the monorail to replace it with a streetcar.

        My gut feelIng is there would be a pretty significant organised opposition to removing the monorail at all.

        I suspect the monorail is here to stay until an earthquake knocks it down or the monorail cars break down to the point where they can’t be repaired.

      6. Charles,

        The good news is that new monorail cars can be bought. They’re not cheap, of course, because of the tiny volume. But Disney has a supplier, Dynamic Structures, which now rehabs their cars and claims to be able to build new ones.

      7. The monorail is to Seattle what the cable cars are to San Francisco. The city proposed to get rid of the cable cars and the people said no, refurbish them instead. Seattle Center itself was a decision to keep the temporary fairground installations. And there was also a move to eliminate Pike Place Market which was defeated. Now the Market and the Center have become valuable and well-used treasures. There’s nothing wrong with the monorail, including the cars, so why get rid of it? It’s not like it’s in the way of anything.

        There will be greater scrutiny in the future when Link is running in the same corridor and people wonder whether we can support two HCTs going to the same place. But that’s something another generation can answer in twenty years. Another issue may be if the stanchions get in the way of Link’s construction; that could require a decision whether to suspend or eliminate the monorail. Although wouldn’t Link’s preliminary scoping have looked at that?

  3. I live in West Tacoma, and once had an all-day work event at Seattle Center. After taking the commuter bus to downtown, I didn’t use the monorail – no ORCA. Instead, I slugged my way on Metro number 3.

    Had the monorail accepted ORCA, using it would have been a no-brainer.

  4. If they do this correctly — buy a couple of ticket machines and use turnstiles instead of humans in a box — this will be a huge success.

    And, even though as I pointed out above, a Battery/Cedar station would be confusing for boarding riders, adding it might be a “bridge” to the Green Line’s two SLU stations. It’s a bit of a walk from Fifth to Amazon, but not that far.

  5. Honestly, it’s infuriating that bringing ORCA to the Monorail is any kind of a deal at all, let alone a big one.
    Shares one miserable flaw with move to using fareboxes in the DSTT:

    The agencies involved seem to have no conception whatever of how much a minute of lost operations costs. Penny Wise and Pound Foolish calls to mention to the Englishman of few words, with a tweed cap and a Triumph.

    More like Penny Dubious and Dollar Dumb as a Double-bottom Dump Truck Delivering Dog Droppings. Just friggin’ do it and go for cofffee.


  6. Use the Sound Transit fare options not Metro cause it’s technically an express service

    1. King County Metro and Sound Transit Express will be charging the same fares once the $2.75 flat fare proposal goes through.

  7. This is exciting. Things are moving slowly, but at least they are moving. I honestly think that it wouldn’t have happened without this blog. Folks on here should take a bow.

    Seriously, the ten year contract — Ten Years! — was about to be signed. It was the same old contract with the same old company. But folks started asking questions, other people knew about the process, and next thing you know, the city council is getting lots of emails about ORCA support for the monorail. In the grand scheme of things it is probably a minor thing, but most likely, thousands of people each day will have a better trip when they finally add ORCA support. Other improvements might follow. Not only is this great on its own right, but a great example of how democracy should work, and how modern technology (the internet) mixes well with an old concept (representatives receiving feedback and guidance from their constituents).

  8. Oh, as far as future improvements for the monorail, Knute Berger at CrossCut has a pretty good article about it:

    I think the first thing — the cheapest thing — is exactly what was mentioned here. Getting people on and off faster is great first step. That alone will make a huge difference when the monorail is not full (which is most of the time).

    Better integration with Link would help a lot, as would better signage. New elevators would cost some money, but not a huge amount.

    After that, the next step is to undo what they did when they build Westlake Park. Allow both trains to run at the same time, essentially doubling throughput. 12,000 an hour is pretty good, and would probably be adequate for most events at the Seattle Center. That is obviously more expensive, but still a great value compared to most other projects.

    1. I’d add to your list, Ross, add or create a more seamless transfer experience from Westlake Link and the street to the monorail station, however that ends up being reconfigured. IIRC the monorail “station” at Westlake is tiny and will need enlarging anyway (and fully separated from the mall to allow for after-hours running), but then you’ve got the mall owners to deal with. Hopefully they can be convinced that having a lot more foot traffic passing through their retail spaces is a good thing – especially when the future of malls themselves is a bit tenuous nowadays. If the arena ends up being at the Key, there should also be some transportation mitigation funding required of the arena developer that could go into making the Monorail better/higher capacity.

      At any rate, I’m another person who will actually use the thing much more often once ORCA is accepted.

  9. Great news!

    Could you add a link directly to the City’s ridership report? It can be found via the link to the Mayor’s press release, but would be easier with a direct link.

    The great news is that the recommended plan include accepting ORCA passes and not only e-purse cash. And aligning the definitions of fare categories to match other agencies is an important step to simplifying the transit experience in our region.

  10. Ultimately, this move from Ed Murray was not so much about improving transit service for people wanting to go between Seattle Center and Downtown, but it was about improving the monorail to serve the thousands of NHL and NBA fans that will be going to games at a potentially rebuilt Key and to beat back criticisms that it is an outdated tourist fossil incapable of delivering decent service compared to the multiplicity of transit options for a potentially superior SODO arena project, e.g., light rail, sounder, and easier egress from I-5, I-90, and I-99.

    1. Definitely not being a cynic, ECC – that’s precisely what happened here. While it can play a role in transportation, particularly with ORCA acceptance, it’s not a coincidence that nothing moved much at all in that regard until the City decided to find a group that (at no small cost to the City) will redevelop the Key. Of course, LQA no longer has nearly the available parking that it used to, and will have less and less, so they had to come up with some way to account for the crowds that will be attending in the 12+ years before Link gets there.

      Frankly, a bus-only, signal preemptive lane each direction on Third to Denny, with off-bus payment and all-door boarding (i.e. actual BRT; even Cusco in Ecuador has figured out how to do this) would help at least as much as a more expensive rebuild of the Monorail; of course, that was never raised either by the City as a condition of development or by the arena’s development groups. Whatever the Key’s merits are to the City, SODO definitely appears to have the transportation advantage.

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