By Joel Sisolak, Senior Director of Sustainability and Planning, Capitol Hill Housing

If you have an ORCA card, there’s a good chance you got it through your employer or your apartment building. The largest group of ORCA users get their pass that way, taking advantage of one of two “Passport” programs (ORCA Business Passport Program for employers and the Multifamily ORCA Passport for apartment-dwellers).

Either way, you are a beneficiary of the most effective transit pass program in the system. In 2017, King County brought in $76 million in revenue from the ORCA Passport programs for approximately 35 million boardings.

The ORCA Passport Program is both effective in getting people on transit and popular, but unfortunately, it doesn’t serve most low-income people. In 2016, Capitol Hill Housing (CHH), a city-wide affordable housing developer and community development organization, surveyed people living in apartments along Pike Street. We found that in market rate buildings, 68 percent had an ORCA pass subsidized by their employer. In contrast, only 22 percent of the residents in affordable housing buildings had Passports.

Far fewer affordable housing residents are offered an ORCA Passport by employers. These residents must resort to more expensive individual passes or walking long distances to work, school or appointments.

To address this disparity, in 2016-17 CHH piloted an expansion of the ORCA Passport program in affordable housing. The project, funded by Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and Enterprise Community Partners, enabled  57 households in three CHH buildings making below 60 percent of the area median income (roughly $60,000 for a family of four) to purchase ORCA Passports at under $20/month, the same amount or slightly more than what many local employees pay for their Passports through work or their apartment building.

The pilot tested three things:

  • Would affordable housing residents making $20,000-40,000/year pay $10-20/month for an ORCA Passport?
  • How much they use the Passport once purchased?
  • Would the program be easy for an affordable housing provider to administer?

The results of pilot were illuminating. More than half of our residents participated in the program and they used it A LOT, an average of 43 trips per month, 80 percent above what KC Metro models anticipated. And the program was easy to administer. Each month, we collected the rider share of the cost via the same mechanism by which we collect monthly rent.

Our residents loved the Affordable ORCA Passport Pilot. It made it easier for them to connect to jobs, healthcare, and opportunities in our city. Here’s a sample of quotes from participants:

“Makes my family feel normal and connected to public transportation, allowing my family to have extra funds to apply to other household cost(s).”

“Please keep it funded and going! I decided not to keep my car and just use this $10 pass and walk. Loving it and saves me money.”

Unfortunately, the pilot ended in 2017. CHH is pressing for an expansion to affordable housing residents across King County. Other housing organizations, including Seattle Housing Authority, King County Housing Authority and the Housing Development Consortium, support an expansion. King County Council has also received letters from Forterra, Futurewise, the Transit Riders Union, the Mayor of Tukwila and the North Urban Human Services Alliance Board, among others.

Advocacy is working. Last month, King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski introduced a motion co-sponsored by Councilmembers McDermott and Kohl-Welles. It instructs Metro to address transit access and affordability for affordable housing residents, as well as youth and community college students. The projected costs of these strategies will inform the Council’s Fall budget deliberations and could lead to a major expansion of transit access to low-income households.

So far, response from King County Metro has been mixed. Metro points to success of ORCA LIFT for reaching low-income riders, but they also recognize that the ORCA Passport is a better product for riders (it is cheaper, does not require regular income qualification hurdles, and does not expire) and is better for reaching groups of people connected to an institution that can handle bulk purchasing and billing.

Motion 2018-0255 is open ended. One big question is how an expanded Affordable ORCA Passport program would be funded. Based on our estimates, the cost should not be prohibitive. The subsidy cost to serve three CHH buildings for a year was under $35,000. We suggest the County create a $1M pool of funds to launch a robust Affordable ORCA Passport program County-wide and target households making 60% of the area median income and lower-income buildings near transit.

There is still a lot left to figure out, which is why Metro’s work under the motion is so important. It directs them to price options for Council consideration in the Fall budget cycle, allowing for a more nuanced discussion of how we can better connect low-income residents to public transit.

An expansion won’t be simple, but folks are willing to roll up their sleeves to figure it out. Mayor Allan Ekberg of Tukwila writes: “The City welcomes the opportunity to participate in conversations about this expansion and how Tukwila might both contribute to its success and benefit our constituents.”

This is a pressing issue that affects all parts of King County, not just Seattle. In a letter to Councilmember Dembowski, the North Urban Human Services Alliance Board, which includes the Cities of Shoreline and Lake Forest Park, laid out a case that could be made for cities throughout our County and underscores why this should be a high priority for Council and Metro going forward:

“As you well know, North King County is growing rapidly. All of the NKC cities are investing in transit infrastructure.  And all of these cities and the County are spending millions of dollars to build affordable housing near transit  hubs. We want to be sure that the folks who live in those buildings can afford to ride transit to school, jobs and other services.  Fixing the ORCA Passport is a logical step towards meeting this goal.”

21 Replies to “It’s Time to Make the ORCA Passport Program Work for All”

  1. Two questions that immediately come to mind:

    1) Don’t we already have Orca Lift? Is this redundant?
    2) There are far more people on waitlists for affordable housing than there are subsidized homes available. Why should people who are lucky enough to get a subsidized home be the ones to also get a subsidized bus pass, while people with the same incomes, sitting on the waitlist, get neither?

    1. Thanks for these questions:

      1. ORCA Lift is a good program (that also deserves some fixes. E.g., Metro et al should consider switching from income qualification based on the federal poverty rate to the King County-based measure of Area Median Income.). BUT, ORCA Lift is no substitute for the more affordable, easier to use Passport.

      2. There is no question we need more affordable housing, that the supply is not keeping pace with demand. But I don’t understand the argument against people “lucky enough” to live in subsidized housing getting access to transit passes at the same price available to to many of their wealthier neighbors.

    2. Right, it’s easy to perpetuate complex systems without asking why we’re doing so. The employer-based medical insurance system we have was not intentional; it was side effect of WWII wage controls: employers couldn’t offer higher salaries so they offered this newfangled insurance benefit thingy instead. They would never imagine congressmen rejecting universal healthcare and saying this patchwork system was better. Likewise, why do we have fares, what level should they be, and how much should we support universal access to transportation? Those are the questions we should be asking, and setting policy accordingly. Not sticking to ORCA LIFT because it’s the band-aid we have.

      People in subsidized housing are doubly lucky: they won the 1-in-20 lottery over other eligible citizens for their apartment, and that apartment entitles them to a $20 bus pass under this proposal. That’s what asdf2 is saying. The comparison is not to their well-paid neighbors with Business Passports, but to their low-income peers, And that is a problem. But we mustn’t let the inability to help everybody prevent us from helping some people’s while we’re looking for a longer-term universal solution. It’s like Durkin’s plan to give free bus passes to all public high schoolers. It doesn’t help those over 18 or in private schools, but it’s a good step anyway.

      1. Getting fares out of the way of buses would certainly speed up buses and reduce a lot of carbon emissions. If you think of fares as a tax, it is hard to imagine a tax with a larger carbon footprint, or one that takes so much time out of so many people’s lives to collect every day.

        But if you made ORCA Passport mandatory and called it a tax, the Chamber would be up in arms. It would be nice if ORCA 3.0 could be a tax that replaced fare collection, but stable progressive funding sources that those with privilege won’t scoff at are hard to come by, whether it be property tax, a payroll tax, or a tax on pollution.

        I wish Metro would start offering a regular accounting of fare collection costs that includes the cost of buses dwelling for fare collection. I bet that would be at least 8 figures annually. If it reaches 9 figures, then fares are merely covering the cost to Metro of fare collection, but not the value of riders’ time.

        I suppose some will put up with slower, less frequent, bus service in order to ration the most destitute off of the bus.

  2. This post seems to be missing a call to action.

    Okay, so I the reader agrees this is a great program that should be expanded, you convinced me.

    Now what do I do to make it happen?

    1. Hi, Seattleite. I love this question.

      Right now, Metro is looking at various options for better serving lower-income riders. Tell them you want an ORCA Passport for affordable housing to be one of the programs they put before the County Council for funding in the fall. You can also contact your County Council rep, reference this blog post, and thank them for supporting an ORCA Passport for affordable housing.

      The Seattle City Council and the Mayor’s office also would benefit from a call. King County Metro would likely ask local jurisdictions to chip in to fund an Affordable Housing ORCA Passport.

  3. Why do CHH and similar groups build parking for their residents if they also want to encourage and subsidize transit? Especially in transit rich neighborhoods. I’ve never understood that.

    1. Problem, Brad, is that transit-rich neighborhoods aren’t always employment-rich. Not a permanent condition. Today’s parking lot can always be tomorrow’s park. But there’s one revenue calculation that has to stop being left out of public discussion.

      Farebox collection anywhere in the system, and most especially and unforgivably in the DSTT, could easily cost our system enough lost operating time to afford everything ORCA-related. Does anybody reading this know the cost of one minute of operating delay?

      Multiply number of fare discussions and change searches by number of stops, passenger loads, and buses, and you’re talking transit to a lot more job locations.

      And also, since we’re talking both fare inspection time and King County Superior Court hours, make possession of a valid card blanket immunity against fare-evasion charge for committing a lawful “on” tap after a forgotten “off tap”.

      Usual unadvertised excuse, need to apportion fares between seven separate agencies, is plain wrong on two counts. One, implicit election promise in regional transit’s creation was a single integrated system. And two, your don’t call passengers Fare Evaders because they mistakenly fail to do the accounting department’s job for them.

      Mark Dublin

      1. Curious, Glenn. What’s the chief economic interest lobbying for universal mandatory parking?


      2. Mandatory parking didn’t come from an economic interest; it came from tradition, ideology, and a much different urban context. Parking spaces replaced horse hitching posts, so they were “always there” ever since cars were common. When the prewar apartments and houses were built, only the rich had cars, families had only one of them, and large parking lots didn’t exist because anything like a stadium or department store had the masses coming by streetcar. The first postwar supermarkets and strip malls had voluntary parking to attract customers, so that was economic, but the mandatory parking requirement that followed was more about managing the overwhelming number of cars in cities than on economic benefit. Because if every store and apartment building has parking, then it’s no longer a competitive advantage of some stores against others. Although you could say it’s secondarily an economic issue, because if the cities hadn’t required parking then the cars would be clogging the streets even more and depressing the economy. Underlying this was the belief that “everybody drives, and always will drive”, so they gave no thought to non-car alternatives. Since then the region’s and the country’s population has more than doubled, so what may have been a reasonable strategy then is strained now.

        It’s like the illustration I heard somewhere, “Why do Los Angelinos idealize a city of freeways with no traffic? It’s because there actually was a time when the freeways and boulevards were first built before the traffic filled them up. In contrast, Manhattanites never imagined they could drive from 90th Street to Wall Street at 55 mph on Monday morning because the very idea was absurd. But in Los Angeles it worked for a while.” That’s the situation we’re at with parking. The context has changed but people’s expectations haven’t.

    2. Because not every trip is best served by transit. And the parking can be used for various things – parking for carshare, parking for deliveries, parking for private shuttles. Particularly for the young, elderly, and disabled, it’s often better to move as a group in a private shuttle than to navigate public transit.

      And people use cars for more than just mobility. Maybe I need a car so I have my tools I need for my job, or so I have extra oxygen tanks for my parents.

      1. “Because not every trip is best served by transit.”

        Chicken and egg: We can’t make bus service more frequent because not enough people ride. Trips by bus are inconvenient because the buses are too infrequent. We must allow huge swaths of free parking because buses are too slow and infrequent. We can’t have bus lanes because they would take away dozens of spaces to park cars. People need those spaces to park cars because buses are too slow and infrequent.

    3. At least some of these low-income buildings were built decades ago, when transit wasn’t what it is now.

      1. Mandatory parking minima have been on the books up until Councilmember Rob Johnson got parking reform passed. Let’s not forget all he has done when the anti-housing-construction lobby comes after him.

        He’s also been a champion for reducing or eliminating youth fares.

  4. Just to clarify, my point really was that at this point of land-use and transit development, it’s perfectly right and fair to give residents a place to park the car. In full expectation that both transit and the choices it makes possible will let people live, work, and go to school all over the region.

    Including different jobs and schools same day, and changes of residence by the month if need be. I think land use goes by patterns, usually decades long, formed when conditions favor. and changed when they cease to work.

    1945, Depression and WWII over, first time in history, average person could buy a car. In a country so big that nobody could ever imagine a time when cars would no longer provide enjoyment, freedom, or getting to work on time. Because they’re trapped by nothing but other cars.

    Also- personal memory here- through at least mid 1960’s, average motorist really thought that transit was a positive to driving, because it kept all those bus and trainloads off the roads. No keep the streetcars campaigns (putting it mildly.) Just something that would never go away. A lot of things classed as blunders and conspiracies are really just failures of the imagination.

    Now, like then, not really ideological. 1945, large numbers of young people hating cramped old cities. Now, obstacles wider spread, but same result. Won’t be the environment, or gas prices. Car travel should be skillfully operated freedom. Not an expensive late-report threatening linear parking lot.

    Shows good things about Nature’s intent how much little kids love riding on trains. But in the meantime that’ll probably last most of our lives, different short-term approaches develop, including on residential parking.

    One complex right across Greenwood from Shoreline College. Single garage containing a stall each per home. Large park for a communal lawn. Could let me see a LMOTBY (Love My Transit Oriented Back Yard) on the property formerly occupied by Lock Haven Apartments. Hope batteries won’t yet have de-wired the 44.


  5. Providing goods (housing, transit, whatever) below market rate to special qualified folks is not sustainable. Demand is infinite.

    Relaxing zoning and removing Metros union-bloated monopoly on service come to mind, but of course neither will happen. We will pass some new taxes, give away free stuff, and wonder why this cycle continues.

    1. Demand is not infinite. There’s a finite number of people, and they don’t want to travel around in circles all day even if it’s free. Places that have made transif free have experienced only a 10% or so increase in ridership, not doubling or tripling. But it obviously makes a big difference to the people’s lives who use it. If we can’t give below-market-rate goods to people, then what do we do about people who can’t afford market-rate housing/transit/food/medicine/schooling? Making them live on a blanket on the sidewalk, or working 80 hours a week without benefits, or walking three hours a day because they can’t afford transit, is not a solution I favor, nor is it a more sustainable strategy.

      What union-bloated monopoly? Metro provides a lot of bus service at a not-so-living wage. The proponents of deunionization/privatization/competing usually advocate policies that would lead to the Uberization of transit: minimum-wage drivers, no benefits or job security, and transit only for the affluent. And that is better because … ?

    2. “Providing goods (housing, transit, whatever) below market rate to special qualified folks is not sustainable.”

      You are so right. The road network is unsustainable without huge infusions of tax money or tolls. Which method will you select to pay for your use of the public roads?

  6. This could cut down in fare evasion. I’m sure some people faced with pay the rent or my light rail fare are choosing rent and taking the risk riding without paying the fare. I have no doubt some live in affordable housing cause I do myself and know how it is. Thankfully my employer provides me with an Otca card.

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