King County Council’s Transportation, Economy and Environment Committee quickly approved Metro’s fare simplification proposal that would eliminate zones and peak-rates — establishing a flat rate of $2.75. But the committee hesitated on a proposal to reduce card fees for adult and youth passengers from $5 to $3, delaying action until the next meeting.
Metro already waives the card fee for ORCA LIFT riders and proposed the eliminations of card fees for Regional Reduced Fare Permits, which the committee approved Tuesday.
But, Metro recommends continuing to charge card fees to adult and youth passengers, saying “the agency needs to balance discounts with service” and “customers have not identified card fees as a significant barrier.”
According to Metro, each card costs $8 to issue, which includes $2.50 in card costs plus tax, credit card fees and staff time to process the card and handle the sale.
Seven transit agencies use the ORCA card, and currently, the ORCA Joint Board, which is charged with setting system-wide policies, is in the process of establishing new card fees. The regional consensus has formed around the $3 charge for card fees for adult and youth riders, but Metro does have the option of setting its own card fees.
Metro estimates a $3 card fee would result in roughly a $700,000 a year loss in revenue for the agency while eliminating the card fee entirely would cost the agency $1.67 million.
Chair of the committee Councilmember Rod Dembowski proposed tabling the decision regarding card fees, calling the $3 proposed card fee “a compromise.”
“What is the best way to lower barriers and get people into the system?” he questioned. “Is it to reduce the fee from $5 to $3? Is that an effective tool if those are the goals?”
“From my sense, I’m not seeing a compelling reason to do that, and the impact to the transit division is about $700,000 a year,” Dembowski said. “I think Metro sees some good uses of those dollars.”
Agreeing, Councilmember Kathy Lambert added, “To me, $1.67 million (referring to revenue if the $5 fee is kept) is a lot of bus service hours that will help everybody.”
“For me, getting people more service is the number one thing,” she added.
According to Scott Gutierrez, Metro spokesperson, currently “Metro uses card fee revenue to partially offset the costs of the cards and the administrative services needed to provide them to customers.”
“The $700,000 in question would be a reduction in revenue if Metro reduced ORCA card fees from $5 to $3 per card (at $5 per card, total revenue is about $1.67 million),” he wrote in an email. “The Council could direct Metro to use any amount of that revenue to do other things, such as add transit service. However, the cost of ORCA cards and administration would remain.”
Dembowski said it might make sense to keep the card fee at $5 and dedicate resources to increasing ORCA promotion.
To help more people access the benefits of public transportation, Gutierrez said, “Metro is considering in coordination with the Council whether investing in things such as more community outreach, education and promotion of transit and ORCA makes sense, rather than reducing card fees.”
The committee also passed a resolution recommending increased funding for the Human Services Ticket program, by $400,000, bringing the total to $4 million per year.
Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles voiced concerned about the efficiency of the program, saying she had heard that riders using these tickets often use one bus ticket to travel to a different human services agency to get another ticket. Kohl-Welles proposed looking into integrating these tickets into the ORCA system instead of these agencies using paper tickets. Leah Krekel-Zoppi, from council staff, said Metro was looking into a very low-income ORCA card pilot program.