Washed. Credit: Wikipedia

The next generation of ORCA cards should be available by 2023 at the latest, according to the contract transit agencies will execute with the company selected to roll out the card with retailers.

The Sound Transit Board signed off on a contract with Ready Credit Corporation at a meeting on April 25. A memo summarizing the contract said that “actual distribution of smart cards” will “begin toward the end of the third year or in the fourth year of the contract,” making winter 2022 the earliest new ORCA cards could be available in stores and vending machines.

Sound Transit already approved the vendor that will create the system architecture, cards, and readers needed for the system, or the back of house, as a restaurant might put it. The Ready Credit contract is for front of house: vending machines and contracts with retailers.

This contract will allow for a significant, positive change in the way people will actually buy and reload ORCA cards. Cards should be available in more locations than they are today.

At present, the transit agencies that accept ORCA as fare payment are responsible for contracting with retailers to put cards in stores. Metro, Sound Transit, and their partners have to get in touch directly with stores that sell cards. The ORCA vending machine system also, according to the memo, suffers from outdated technology, which is no longer available for purchase. Also, Sound Transit and partner agencies are responsible for vending machine maintenance.

The result is agreements with grocery stores, and mostly chain grocery stores at that. The bulk of the names on the current ORCA vendor list are QFC and Safeway.

Presumably, contracting with a private vendor with a strong incentive to expand the card business will improve business development. In Portland, where TriMet has a card sales contract with Ready Credit, Hop cards are available for sale in a wide variety of businesses across the city.

Ready Credit’s core business is issuing prepaid debit cards and gift cards through retail stores and self-serve vending machines. According to the Sound Transit memo, Ready Credit has sales operations in “over 570 retailers in the ORCA region.” If the new system develops like Portland’s, customers will be able to buy a pre-loaded ORCA pass or reload cards with cash or credit in pretty much every bodega.

This new system would have helped your cashless correspondent out in the writing of this post. I rode gratis on the way home from the board meeting where it got approved. I lost track of my ORCA balance and, rushing out of the meeting to run some errands downtown, forgot to refill my card at the ORCA machine at Union Station. I didn’t have time to duck into the tunnel and refill my card. Luckily for me, the Metro operator was understanding and waved me by.

So here’s another benefit of the next generation ORCA system: STB will finally stop evading fares.

Read our previous coverage of ORCA NextGen

56 Replies to “Next gen ORCA cards to roll out by 2023, in more retail locations”

  1. I was thinking the other day about how comparatively expensive transit is for families and large groups. For example, if you are a family of 5 in Federal Way and you wanted to go see the Mariners, or go to Pike Place Market. You might consider taking a bus, but the cost is something like $3x5x2 = $30 round trip for the family. Similar for a group of friends to go to a game. That’s comparable to the gas and parking you’d pay to drive downtown. As an equity issue, and to incentivize transit usage, would it be reasonable to offer multi-ticket discounts using ORCA cards? Like one person could just tap their ORCA card 5 times. First tap = full fare, 2nd tap 10% off, 3rd tap 20% off 4th tap 30% off, and so on up to a cap around 70% off for each additional fare.

    1. Presumably only two of the people are adults. If the others are kids between 6 and 18, it’s actually $2.75 * 2 + $1.50 * 3 = $10 ($20 round trip.) And that’s worst-case scenario.
      It’s $3 off the round-trip price for every kid 5 and under. And $5.50 off for each adult with a pass.

      Do the Mariners still do a free bus fare with a ticket?

      1. My understanding is that the youth discount requires a youth orca card, which requires going downtown during business hours to pick up, which can be a significant hassle for people that work somewhere other than downtown.

        For only occasional riders, this hassle isn’t worth it, and the youth fare effectively becomes the adult fare.

      2. Do they no longer sell ORCA cards by mail? I suppose that wouldn’t work for this scenario if the trip was last-minute or spontaneous, but if you’re prone to making such trips spontaneously and by bus, ordering ORCA cards for the family seems sensible. It’s easy and takes a few minutes.

        I agree ORCA could and should be more convenient for users, but that’s no reason to exaggerate how difficult it actually is.

      3. For adults they do, but not youth. Basically, Metro needs someone they trust to verify that the card is actually going to a child, not an adult pretending to be a child. This extra verification means much more hassle to get the card. The parent basically has to wait for a weekday when the kid is out of school (e.g. summer break, teacher in-service), then take off a day from work to go downtown with them. Unless the kid needs the discount to go to school every day, it’s never worth the effort.

      4. There are roving ORCA distribution vans. They could go to the school and give the cards to the students right there. Are they afraid the adults will take the cards from the kids and use them themselves? Or do they record the adult’s ID when they issue the card? If not, I don’t see why they can’t just distribute them to the kids at school.

      5. Nobody’s going to bother going through the hassle of getting a youth orca card by mail (and figuring out how exactly to do this) to save a few dollars on an occasional game day ride.

      6. Why can’t retailers verify age eligibilty for youth/senior ORCA cards? We already rely on them to verify the age of people who buy alcohol or tobacco products.

        Mike, the youth cards have the birthdate of the user encoded so they expire when they turn 19.

    2. I really enjoy the ability to read the current ORCA card with an NFC android phone.

      An ORCA app with QR code and NFC support would be nice. That could be improved over time, with features like groups, and group transfers.

      Robust, continuous data links for buses.

      But the most important, IMO, is support for all-door boarding – so no odd restrictions on the number and locations of readers.

    3. Honestly, I think as we move towards making transit more accessible to more folks, ORCA should just be free to all students enrolled in schools in the ST service area. Seattle already does it for high school students – the same should be true for middle school students that may already take the bus to school and can’t drive anyways, and families so they don’t have to pay the equivalent of Uber fare to get around the city.

      1. Isn’t Seattle giving out free cards to all students except maybe elementary school? I didn’t hear a high-school limitation in the news coverage. And I started riding Metro to school in 8th grade (with a full-priced pass).

    4. On the other hand, it’s far less wasteful of resources for a family to fill most of the seats in a private automobile than it is for someone to drive it alone someplace, so it’s really not so worrisome.

  2. Fare story, tangential.

    I recently was on the Sounder, and enforcement came by. Poor bloke had forgotten to tap on his way in, and got written up. Enforcement has no power to waive the fee and charge the card. Quite BS in my opinion.

    Hope the new ORCA tech can rectify this.

    1. Your opinion is that the penalty for getting caught not paying is that you should have to pay the fare? Or that enforcement officers should be making a ‘good faith’ judgment and let those judged to have made an innocent error get off with just paying the fare?

      I’ve benefited from the latter, although I’m not sure it’s a good idea. I was in London, and had accidentally gotten on the wrong train – and one that was much more expensive than the ticket I had paid for. The conductors started out quite sternly lecturing me, but as soon as they heard my American accent, realized I had just fucked up rather than was trying to game the system. Then they became very helpful and directed me to the train I actually wanted.

      1. Enforcement officer should be able to look at someone’s card and, at the least, note that they have a monthly pass that covers fare and not give people any writeups.

        More than that, enforcement officers should, indeed, be able to waive.

        In other words, simple errors of forgetfulness do not warrant a full writup.

      2. Current policy, at least on Link, is that you get off with a warning on your first offense.

        Allowing FEOs to exercise their discretion in whether or not to issue a fine introduces the potential for discrimination. I’d really rather not have that.

        I agree that having a valid monthly pass should exempt you from being penalized for failing to tap on.

      3. Not, sure if my employer-provided pass is the same as the monthly pass, but not enforcing valid monthly/employer provided passes don’t seem like a good idea.

        My smallish company gets their passes through Commute Seattle, and scanning while using transit indicates the ridership for Commute Seattle to negotiate the rates each year with Sound Transit via ORCA. If no one scans their card, then ridership numbers would indicate less people ride Sound Transit, in this example, and would in return get less from employee passes. It’s prudent for Sound Transit to make sure their ridership numbers are accurate.

        Additionally the opposite is true as well, and when someone taps in, but doesn’t tap out (because they assume the employee pass doesn’t matter) the full fare is assumed by Sound Transit giving them more fare, and passes on more costs to Commute Seattle / My Employer.

        Tapping your card is the system we use to obtain fares (and ridership numbers), so not penalizing monthly riders seems like a flaw in the system.

        I do agree that we all have forgotten from time to time, so it would be good for fare enforcement to use some discretion.

      4. The point is, a fare enforcer is stuck with an all or nothing proposition. Either they let the person slide, or they assess a huge fine. They can’t just charge them full fare, and give them a warning. I think Paul has a good point. An experienced cop (or security guard, or whatever you want to call them) would maybe just charge them full fare the first time, and give them the stink eye. Tell them this is their last warning and all that.

  3. I don’t want to use an orca card, I want to tap on and off with my phone or watch they way I could when I visited Portland and rode Max.

    1. +10. Hop is light years ahead of Orca. And, yes, it has multiple agencies and different fare structures. Instead of “rolling.your own” Puget Sound, you should just license Hop.

      1. There are some fare structures that Hop does not support, namely Link’s and Sounder’s distance-based fares and the state ferry system’s multi-ride tickets. Hop doesn’t even support the other small agencies in the Portland area, just the big two and the streetcar.

        Not sure what “licensing Hop” would mean. ORCA already chose the same contractor as Hop’s as ORCA Next Gen’s systems integrator.

      2. Oran,

        You’re right, it doesn’t have distance based fares, and that’s fairly complex. However, it does have a “purse” which could certainly accommodate a multi-ride discount.

        What agencies are there in the Portland MSA other than Tri-Met, C-Tran and the Portland Streetcar? Do you mean Cherriots? If they wanted to participate I’m sure they could; they have flat fares. I guess the Wilsonville agency with it’s most-of-the-time-free-but-we’re-gonna getcha–after-7:00 PM might be a problem.

        By “licensing Hop” I mean buying the software from Tri-Met. The “systems integrator” is the company that provides the data processing services, not the coders, I believe.

      3. I didn’t know C-Tran moved their agency to Portland? Last I heard it was a Clark County based agency that pays a usage fee for HOP.

      4. Oran, that’s great news, then. Hop is very reliable, and quick.

        Less, I guess you don’t understand what an “MSA” is, do you?

      5. Less is more Tom the Terrible.

        “What agencies are there in the Portland MSA?” If you’re going to use an area made up of 7 counties then you would think there is more than a couple agencies.

        Sandy Area Metro
        South Clackamas Transportation District
        South Metro Area Regional Transit
        Columbia County Rider

      6. WES is a Tri-Met service.
        SMART (South Metro Transportation District) is that Wilsonville agency that’s free until 7:00 PM and whose name I forgot when I was applying.
        CC Rider has three zones and apparently accepts no Federal funds, because the Honored Citizen fare in only $1 less than $5, $6, or $7. So Hop can’t be used at this time.
        SAM is $1 per ride except that in-town it’s free. Like Wilsonville that probably doesn’t work with Hop’s architecture
        South Clackamas TD is similar to SAM
        You forgot CAT (Canby Area Transit)

        Basically none of these tiny agencies runs often enough to cover the overhead of Hop. Does The Valley Shuttle take ORCA? No.

      7. Valley Shuttle is an interesting case. It’s free for those connecting to Metro but if you are riding only the shuttle there’s a “suggested donation” of $1 per trip.

        Looks like Central Puget Sound has better fare interoperability than Portland in this respect, even Los Angeles County has many small agencies accepting their TAP card.

    2. I second the need to open this up to phone NFC/apps. We shouldn’t be investing in custom solutions if there is a generic one already available.

    3. When I get pulled over by a cop, or want to get on airplane, or get carded buying weed, I want to just flash my phone, but it ain’t gonna happen. You need another card. Boo Hoo.

      1. All of those transactions require, for one reason or another, positive identification of identity or age. Transit fares do not. Other cities manage to integrate their transit payment into mobile phone payment systems, there’s really no reason ORCA shouldn’t be able to.

        Considering your often stated position that we should do everything possible to speed up bus operations, pooh pooing a feature that puts a cashless payment method in everyone’s pocket seems incongruous.

  4. “The ORCA vending machine system also, according to the memo, suffers from outdated technology, which is no longer available for purchase.”

    Does this present a problem for Northgate Link which is scheduled to open in 2021? This makes it seem like Sound Transit will not be able to purchase ORCA equipment for the three stations in Northgate Link. Obviously getting ORCA v2 in place by 2023 is an important deadline because that allows East Link (and the dozenish stations) to have ORCA v2 on opening day, and may not even have ORCA v1 equipment at all.

    1. I think that refers to the equipment retailers like QFC and Safeway use to issue and revalue cards. The vending machines at ST staions are made by Scheidt & Bachmann, not the original ORCA vendor, though those will likely be replaced too by the time this is rolled out.

    2. IIRC, now that the DSTT is Link only, the tunnel level readers are slowly being removed. They are unnecessary, as everyone uses a mezzanine (or in the case of IDS, street level readers) for access now. I believe these units are destined for Northgate Link.

  5. Many thanks for your coverage of ORCA Next Gen. It will be nice when drugstores like Bartell’s can refill ORCA Next Gen for those that don’t want to use an app or have to race to a light rail station to refill an ORCA Card.

    Also nice: Getting an ability for venues – such as arenas & museums – to charge for parking via simply discounting from admission the ORCA fare at a future date. ;-)

  6. I know the US’s banking system is probably too antiquated for this right now, but it would be nice if they would build the new generation of ORCA to support contactless payments. It’s so cool that in London you don’t even need an Oyster card if you have a credit card. This would be a great way to increase the accessibility of transit. In London, you can also use Google Pay or Apple pay if you don’t have a contactless card.

    1. The next gen ORCA equipment and backend supports contactless payments but will be implemented after the initial rollout. Portland and Chicago are already accepting them. NYC’s Metrocard replacement will soon, too.

  7. I understand the need for a standalone card for people that don’t have smartphones, or don’t want to rely on them for transit purchases.

    I still hope that having an App that works on smartphones is a requirement of the new system. I’ve used the systems in Chicago and San Francisco and keep those apps on my phone for my occasional travels to those cities.

    I’ll often ride public transit when in those cities. If I had to rely on cash or a local transit card I’d be much more likely to rely on Uber or Lyft.

    1. It will have an app. There’s an app right now – TransitGo, but it has somewhat limited functionality for example it only has agency-specific tickets and only for some agencies. It will be replaced with something regional.

  8. Will this system make it possible to just make the cards free, rather than the ridiculous $5 that doesn’t even get you any fare credit? I was recently in Boston for a week, and got a CharlieCard from a station attendant for free who just had a stack of them rubber-banded together. No charge for the card, and I spent $21.75 for a pass giving me unlimited subway/bus rides for a week (that’s another thing I’d love to see!).

    1. Charlie handed in his Dime
      At the Kendall Square Station
      And he changed for Jamaica Plain
      Where he got there
      The Conductor said
      “One more nickel”,
      Charlie couldn’t get off of that train!

      That’s why it’s the “CharlieCard”. A tip of the Hatlo Hat to The Kingston Trio

      1. “A California school district is testing iris scanning devices on three buses this fall. The system aims to ensure that no students are accidentally left behind on the bus.”

        There’s hope for you yet. We wouldn’t want such a talented and terrific guy to be left behind.

    2. Boston is eons ahead of us in terms of transit. Eventually we will be where they were twenty years ago, and pronounce ourselves innovative. If we are lucky.

      1. Meh. You can’t buy a CharlieCard from a TVM, you have to go to a station attendant. The TVMs only dispense magnetic-strip paper CharlieTickets.

      2. Yep, that was one of the disappointments I had. In fact, you can’t even get the CharlieCards at *all* stations – I tried to get one from the attendant at the Blue Line airport station, but she didn’t have any. Fortunately MBTA has the Silver Line which is free from the airport to downtown (not true in the reverse). I suppose I could have dropped a few dollars for subway fare without the pass, but I was feeling very principled at the time…

      3. As I recall, the Silver Line stops inside the fare gates at South Station, so it’s also a free transfer from there to any of the other subway lines. Last time I was in Boston, I think I did a couple transfers then ended up getting a Charlie Card at a Green Line station that had an attendant inside the fare gates.

  9. Here’s how the new contract with Ready Credit Corp is structured, per ST Motion 2019-30:

    “Proposed action

    “Authorizes the chief executive officer to execute a ten-year contract, with five additional one-year
    options to extend, with Ready Credit Corporation to be the retail network services provider for the next generation ORCA program in the amount of $14,874,935, with a 20% contingency of $2,974,987, for a total authorized contract amount not to exceed $17,849,922, contingent upon approval of the ORCA Joint Board. The Sound Transit share of the capital project costs will be approximately $63,629, plus 20% contingency while the operating costs will be determined by regional agreement for each year of operations.”

    “Key features summary…

    ” •The capital project cost is $235,200, including the base term and contingency. The operating cost is $17,614,722, including all option years and contingency. Operating costs are to be paid to Ready Credit Corporation based on a 5.5 percent commission for each value load transaction and a $1.25 commission for each card sold.

    ” •Sound Transit’s capital portion of the contract is approximately $63,268.80, including options and contingency, which is based upon a capital share of 26.9 percent of regionally-shared network design and integration.” [Ed. note: The figure above appears to include a transposition and should be stated as $63,628.80. Also, it actually excludes the 20% contingency.]

    “Fiscal information…

    “In this proposed action, Sound Transit’s costs are divided between capital and operating costs. Sound Transit’s portion of the total capital cost of $235,200 is, $63,629 plus a 20 percent contingency of $12,726 for a total of $75,355. These costs will be incurred between 2019 and 2021 as design and testing are completed. The balance of the contract is operating costs and Sound Transit’s share will be included as fare collection expenses in future year budgets.”

    The bottom line is that ST, with the approval of the Orca joint board, is entering into a ten-year contract with this vendor, with five one-year options to extend the contract, for just shy of $18 million. The commission structure is 5.5% of the value loaded and $1.25 per Orca card issued.

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