Spokane Transit’s Go Smart Card,
now free

King County Metro’s fare restructure proposal got its first formal vetting, and approval, at the King County Regional Transit Committee last week.

The proposal consists of:

  • a $2.75 regular fare on Metro, regardless of time or distance
  • a reduction in the regular and youth ORCA card fee from $5 to $3.
  • elimination of the $3 administrative (card) fee for the Regional Reduced Fare Permit (for seniors 65+, riders with a qualifying disability, and Medicare cardholders)
  • an increase in the cap on tickets distributed through human service agencies

The fiscal note for the package was provided to the committee.

Metro is expected to bring in approximately $3 million in additional fare revenue per year as a result of the fare restructure.

The cap on human service ticket allotments will increase by $400,000 per year (and oddly, this amount is stagnant, rather than indexed to population growth or clientele growth).

Eliminating the $3 RRFP administrative fee is estimated to cost Metro $75,000 per year in forgone fees. Making the senior/disabilities version of the ORCA card available for free would bring the program more in line with the industry standard, as 16 of the other 24 smart card programs in the US also make their senior/disability cards available for free. Metro has pointed out that it costs $8 to produce each card (and closer to $40 to go through the whole process for the invasive disability card qualification process). But given the effort one has to go through to get these cards, the standard argument about charging for the card in order to avoid people treating them as disposable doesn’t seem to apply, especially when losing the card means loss of access to the fare discount.

Reducing the regular and youth card fee from $5 to $3 is estimated to cost Metro $700,000 per year in forgone card revenue.

That leaves Metro clearing a profit of roughly $1.8 million per year in net extra revenue.

Extrapolating from this data, it would cost Metro on the order of $100,000 per year to simply eliminate the youth card fee. That’s a rounding error in Metro’s 10-digit budget, but even $3 can be enough of a disincentive to bother switching from cash to tapping ORCA, especially when the fare is the same without the card. Given the effort it takes to get a youth card, the treating-as-disposable argument again doesn’t seem to apply.

Getting rid of both the youth and regular card fee would cost an additional $1,050,000, or $1,750,000 total, per year.

Most peer bus agencies in the US with smart cards charge either $2 for the card, or make the card available for free.

Smart cards that are available for free include:
Albany’s Navigator Card
Boston’s Charlie Card
Chicago’s Ventra Card
Denver’s MyRide Card, with a minimum purchase of $5 in fare product
Houston’s Metro Q Card
Maryland’s Charm Card, with a minimum purchase of $10 in fare product
Minneapolis/St. Paul’s Go-To Card, with a minimum purchase of $5 in fare product
Philadelphia’s SEPTA Key Card
Sacramento’s Connect Card
San Francisco’s Clipper Card, if you set up auto-reload
Spokane’s Go Smart Card

Los Angeles’ Transit Access Pass costs $1 at vending machines and onboard buses.
Pittsburgh’s Connect Card also costs $1.

Smart cards that cost $2 include:
Atlanta’s Breeze Card
Jacksonville’s Star Card
Miami’s Easy Card
Milwaukee’s M•Card
San Diego’s Compass Card
Tucson’s SunGo Card
Washington’s SmarTrip Card
Medford, OR’s TouchPass

Portland’s HopFastpass costs $3.
Salt Lake City’s FarePay card also costs $3.

Anchorage charges $5 for its new Smart Card, joining ORCA at the lonely top.

Whether you use the median ($1), the mode (free!) or the average ($1.21), the industry standard is clearly far below charging $3 for a smart card.

It is hard to imagine the investment of just under $2 million per year to get rid of all the ORCA card fees not paying for itself in more efficient service, improved ridership induced by faster and more reliable service, and thereby increased fare revenue.

The Regional Transit Committee and Metro are trying to reduce barriers to getting riders to use ORCA. Now they know the cost and where to get the money.

The package of proposals goes next to the County Council’s Transportation, Environment, and Economy Committee. The County Council can still amend the proposal and turn a milquetoast fare restructure into a milestone in wiping out the high barriers that have been in place discouraging ORCA use.

36 Replies to “Metro’s Profit From Fare Flattening is Enough to Wipe Out ORCA Card Fees”

  1. Increase the transfer window to 2.5 hours and eliminate the paper transfer.
    Introduce an in-county daypass at $5.50 which you get automatically if you pay two full fares – Portland does this.

  2. I was thinking something similar. Could there be enough goodies here to grease the way for elimination of transfers?

    And that could bring in another bonanza by reducing fare cheating …

    1. Eliminating paper transfers should save enough money to pay for a lot of ORCA cards.

      1. when PT eliminated paper transfers in favor of a single ride or day pass, ridership went down and revenue went up. what does that tell you?

  3. Yes, I agree completely.

    You also can’t ignore the politics. Right now, the high cost of the ORCA card is not only a disincentive for use, but discourages further improvements. Give them away for free, and the dynamic changes. Instead of trying to prop up our current mess of a system, we move towards a cashless one (similar to what Boston has). You can do several things that would currently considered to be a burden on the poor, but would be quite reasonable:

    1) Charge more to use cash.

    2) Get rid of transfers (as mentioned above). The savings would be substantial, and you also eliminate a big source of cheating.

    This also pushes the system in the right direction. The challenge is no longer about trying to balance the two systems, but about enabling the acquisition and loading of ORCA cards. Right now this vital part of our transit system is ignored, because the backup (just pay cash) is so easy, and actually cheaper for most trips. If it was the opposite, then there would be great pressure to make ORCA cards a lot more available, which would be much better for everyone. Right now, if you don’t own an ORCA card and want to take a simple bus and train trip, it costs a fortune (either you pay for the ORCA card, or pay for both systems). But if ORCA cards were free — like most cities — then it would simply be a matter of getting one, loading it, and using it.

  4. I don’t understand all the talk of slow intermediate steps like charging more for cash fare, or eliminating paper transfer. Why would we let people pay cash fare but then make their life difficult with surcharges and no transfers. Just say no cash. The only decent reason I’ve heard to not do away with cash is orca availability. A solution I’ve seen before would be to have drivers sell $20 orcas preloaded with $17. That would mean less cash transactions, and the few that happen would mostly be a twenty rather than two twos and three quarters

    1. What if I lose my Orca card?

      What if someone’s car breaks down and they need to ride the bus one morning from a random stop in the depths of suburbia? What if someone’s visiting from out of town? Either way, sure, they can get an Orca card – but they need one bus ride with cash to a place they can get one!

      Charge more for cash, by all means, but make it possible!`

      1. Mobile based payments? Credit card readers? Doesn’t work for everyone, but neither does exact change cash. Thing is I never carry any cash, fewer and fewer people do anymore. Literally can’t remember the last time I paid cash for something.

      2. Not everyone has a smartphone with a mobile pay app installed (or a data plan to get one while standing at a bus stop) either. Credit card readers do sound intriguing, though. My main objection to them is that they charge prohibitively-high transaction fees in relation to the small cost of bus fares, but as long as we’re talking about hiking non-Orca fares anyway…

      3. I would wager that more suburbanites (using your example) have a mobile phone in their pocket than cash in their wallet. I rarely carry cash, as is the case with most people I know.

    2. Activists tell me that the cash fare is really about the very poorest riders, who literally don’t have enough money at any given time to preload a stored-value ORCA for even a couple of rides.

      But allowing them to pay cash on board lets the richer cash fumblers who have other options do it too. There has to be some other way to accommodate the folks with zero money. Expand off-board ORCA loading options–put ORCA cash accepting machines at many more major stops, including those near social services and transitional housing options. Adopt more POP, which may allow a rider to slide from time to time (especially on very short rides). Something to stop adding minutes to every trip from cash fumbling.

      1. Isn’t that the point of the social service freebie vouchers? Additionally, it’s gotten to the point where I very, very rarely see a driver even politely discourage fare evasion, so we’re in a de facto fareless system as it is.

      2. Do what Boston does. Have cards as well as tickets, both easily available. Accept cash, but charge a lot more for it. I have no idea how many people actually pay with cash, but I think it is very low.

      3. The problem with the Boston approach is that actually getting somewhere where you can buy a Charlie card is inconvenient – about 90% of the T stations, you can’t get a new card; you can only add value to a card you already have.

      4. Until we can get some sort of monthlyish pass for no-income riders, getting a free ORCA LIFT card and paying the ORCA LIFT fare beats blowing one’s cash for a regular fare. Getting to places where the card can be reloaded remains a problem.

  5. How does the restructure save $3m per year? It doesn’t seem like they’re charging much more for the average fare.

  6. Yesterday on the 8, an older women boarded, and then proceeded to drop her quarters which rolled around aimlessly near the front of the bus. The bus driver seemed to indicate “don’t worry about it, just sit down”, but the person was insistent (with the aid of her fellow bus riders) on getting those quarters back, and into the slot. I admired her determination, but, please no more cash option. She could, by all appearances (nicely dressed grandmotherly type), afford a reduced fare ORCA card.

  7. Small correction for the OP (having traveled to Chicago recently and used their Ventra card).

    “New cards cost $5, but the purchase fee is waived when you order online and is refunded as transit value if you buy one in person and register within 90 days.”

    “The fee is waived if you order online or by phone (though a minimum value load or pass purchase is required) since you’re automatically registered.”

  8. Since ORCA is a regional system with 9 participating agencies, is it even possible for Metro to reduce the card cost without getting buy-in from the other agencies? Seems like they would all have to agree on the price of the product as it doesn’t belong to any one agency.

    1. Pete, just saw front page feature story in the Tacoma Tribune about how former Seattle residents cannot afford to live in King County anymore. Results for transit mean that last northbound bus I can ride, rather than sit aboard on I-5, leaves at 5:12 every week day morning.

      Because while people are forced out of their homes, and city, and county, most still work where they used to.

      So instead of waiting for trend-reversal and accompanying Crash of 2008 sequel, this is probably a good time to adjust our fare system, and the other ones, to the new reality.

      Every inch of transit highway, railroad track, and ferry-boat route from Marysville to Centralia to Bremerton to Cascade Pass is the same zone, and everything in a transit budget is in the same subarea and fare zone.

      Savings on complication-related delays should more than pay go keep our system in existence.


    2. Reducing the cost, even for promotions, requires approval of the joint board (which is only six agencies). But they generally go along with each others’ requests.

  9. David, I think the answer is pretty simple. For people whose income doesn’t let them pay transit fared, and can’t be helped by bringing back labor unions, enlarge and multiply facilities like Second and Jackson and Westlake mezzanine.

    For everybody else, sell cards as many public places as possible. Drug and grocery stores. Every single coffee-house. Libraries. Goal should be making it 360 degrees impossible not to see a card outlet.

    And Felsen, for the sake of everybody on board starting with you, there’s a very good reason why a drivers’ job description flatly forbids getting into fare enforcement. It’s the same reason Fare Inspectors don’t drive trains.

    However, drivers are also strongly encouraged, including by being paid, to fill out incident reports on return to base detailing times, places, and description of fare evaders. Especially blatantly repeat ones.

    And as taxpaying constituent, you’ve also got the right and duty to send your elected reps same detailed report. Unlike Customer Services, you elected them, and you can also fix that error next election. Unlike Metro employees, their bosses are powerfully anti-union.


  10. This is still the best piece (imo) I’ve read on the subject matter:


    An excerpt…..

    “While the model missing the mark by an average of 2.3 percent in fare change years sounds slight, that difference could have a significant impact on fare revenues. Metro Transit saw 121,547,395 annual boardings in 2016. A 2.3% error would mean almost 2.8 million boardings based on that number–which would seemingly throw revenue projections off by more than $5 million.”

  11. “Getting rid of both the youth and regular card fee would cost an additional $1,050,000, or $1,750,000 total, per year.”

    Is this dollar amount based on total number of cards currently distributed at the current card fee, or a projected increase in card distribution (potentially because of the loss deterrence effect of paying for losing your card)?

  12. Vancouver BC used to price its Compass Card higher than the ORCA card (depending on the exchange rate) but now the price to obtain a card is a $6 refundable fee.

  13. This blog seems really obsessed with getting rid of the $5 charge. For the people who are so poor that they literally can’t afford it – how do they even have fare money? Can’t they just get on the bus without paying like everyone else? I thought that’s how we are dealing with it now.

    1. It’s a continuum with different levels. Some people can’t pay anything. Some people have a few dollars at a time, enough for a single fare but not enough to prepay the minimum $5 e-purse refill or card fee. Others could pay but they think the $5 fee is a ripoff, or they’ve noticed that ORCA gives you 2 hours travel time and paper transfers give up to 3-4 hours, or all night after 9:30pm. Or they’re occasional riders who don’t know when they’ll make another bus trip or know they won’t, so they don’t want to pay the fee. The net result is that they pay cash, which slows down the buses and prevents them from being more frequent.

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