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 The ORCA vending machine system also, according to the memo, suffers from outdated technology, which is no longer available for purchase.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