How to use an ORCA card to pay for the monorail

As of today, October 7, the Seattle Center Monorail has a new payment option: the ORCA card in your pocket, bag, or phone case. After five years of study and negotiations earlier this year from the rest of the ORCA consortium, the monorail is now better integrated into the regional transit system as a real commuter option.

Monorail riders using their ORCA cards will line up at the regular ticket booths and present their card to the cashier. After a quick tap with a handheld reader, you’ll be able to board the monorail, which runs every 10 minutes between Westlake Station and the Seattle Center. The monorail will work similar to a normal bus, with both daily and monthly passes accepted as payment alongside e-purse deductions. The two-hour transfer offered with ORCA transactions also apply to the monorail.

The monorail will continue to accept cash, credit/debit cards, and mobile tickets. Paper transfers from Metro buses will not be accepted. The monorail has accepted mobile tickets through Metro’s TransitGo app since January 2018.

With the new ORCA availability, fare for all monorail riders will be increased. One-way fares for adults are now $3, while youth, senior, disabled, and ORCA Lift customers pay $1.50. An active duty member of the U.S. military is also able to get the $1.50 discounted rate with a valid military ID, but this only applies to paper tickets. Round trip fares remain the price of two one-way tickets.

Monorail terminal at Westlake Center (airbus777/Flickr)

The monorail takes approximately 2 minutes to make the short trip between the Seattle Center and Westlake Center. The Seattle Center terminal is located on the east side of the Center Armory Building, along Thomas Street near the Space Needle. The Westlake Center terminal is on the third floor of the shopping center and is accessible from within the mall, using outdoor entrances on 5th Avenue, or from a stairway and elevator from the Westlake light rail station’s mezzanine.

The first 100 riders today will receive a small prize from the Seattle Center, while random ORCA users will be eligible for other prizes throughout the week.

The monorail already carries 2 million annual passengers, averaging about 5,000 riders on weekdays and 9,400 on Saturdays. With ORCA integration and the completion of arena renovations to house a new NHL team, this number is expected to grow substantially within a few years. To accommodate the increased patronage, the arena renovation project plans to also include funds to rebuild the Westlake Center terminal with a new outdoor entrance and other improvements.

45 Replies to “Monorail now accepts ORCA cards”

  1. Now, we need a way for Orca payers to bypass the slow line of tourists. Cash is slow, especially when the attendant gives change. Chip-based credit card transactions are slow. As are tourists holding up the line, asking the attendant how to get to XYZ from the station at the other end. Even a delay of just 20 seconds per person adds up to 5 minutes for 15 people. Having a train go by while you’re standing at the cashier line, and having to wait 10 minutes for another one makes the 2 minute ride take longer than just riding a bus down 3rd Ave.

    Another way to put it, as things currently stand, it is the fare collection, not the train cars, that is currently the limiting factor in how many passengers per hour the monorail can carry.

    1. I’m pretty sure they’re reorganizing the whole process for the new Key Arena anyway so this is a temporary (but still annoying) setback.

      1. That’s good. Baby steps, as it were. Still, this is a major improvement. This will save a lot of riders a lot of money, or a lot of time (as the case may be). Eventually they will have two lines, which would make a lot more sense. If the monorail is ever to become a major player in our pubic transportation system, this will have to be improved.

        I do think it is interesting that this is happening in the fall, when I’m sure ridership takes a nosedive. I would expect ORCA users to quickly dominate ridership. In the summer, when tourists arrive, is when the complaining should start. People who use the monorail every day won’t like standing in a really long line. It is not good for the tourists, either (“Why is everyone so grumpy and in such a big hurry”). At that point, I think it is possible that the agency in charge will do something about it, since it really wouldn’t take much effort to have a reader next to the ticket booth.

    2. Has anyone already waited in the queue to tap their ORCA card, and missed a monorail vehicle?

      They aren’t trains, BTW. “Monorail consist” will never catch on.

      1. From the Wikipedia entry on Monorails:

        São Paulo, Brazil is building a Bombardier Innovia Monorail system as part of its public transportation network. The 14.9 mile guideway will have 17 stations, 54 monorail trains and a passenger capacity of 40,000 commuters per hour in each direction.

        The most common type is the straddle-beam, in which the train straddles a steel or reinforced concrete beam 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to 0.9 m) wide.

        Current monorails are capable of more efficient switching than in the past. With suspended monorails, switching may be accomplished by moving flanges inside the beamway to shift trains to one line or another.

        You get the idea. I think most people call them monorails (or ours “the monorail”) even though that is ambiguous (as it could refer to the vehicle or the track). I think it is quite reasonable to call them trains or monorails or monorail trains, as Wikipedia authors do.

      2. I mean, any caravan of carts moving in the same direction can be a “train”. Wagon train, camel train, etc. It doesn’t need two steel rails to be a train.

      3. My train this morning held for 10 seconds to board a person dashing up to the train. I didn’t see how he paid.

      4. There is a little number on the front of a bus that identifies the specific timetable slot that trip occupies. For example, 3302 would be route 33 and position 2 in the timetable.

        Down here in TriMet land those little numbers are referred to as “train numbers” so even if it is a bus it is still a train – from the days most transit was made up of single car trains on tracks in city streets.

    3. As staffing allows and demand requires, a person will pull ORCA holders out of line to tap and board (or more likely, queue to board)

  2. They tell us a round trip is the cost of two one-way rides, yet they will take transfers during the two hour window. Does anyone know how much a quick ride out and back will actually cost an ORCA cardholder?

    1. Presumably you’ll only pay for the ride there if your return is within 2 hours, that’s how buses and Link work right now already.

  3. This is a big win for transit riders, and I think it is worth pointing out that it wouldn’t have happened without this blog, and the comment section. We were having a discussion about the monorail (for no particular reason, really) and a couple of interesting facts arose. One is that a significant number of people use it, or would use it, to get to Lower Queen Anne. The other is that the monorail is operated under contract with the city, and that the contract was about to be renewed. If nothing was done, then there would be no ORCA support for at least ten years.

    This is an example of true grass roots democracy. Ordinary folks commenting on a blog discussed a problem, came up with a solution, and petitioned those in charge (the city council) to change things. I mention all of this because often people become cynical, and feel like the city (county, or what have you) isn’t going to do anything. This isn’t the biggest change in the world, but it is a good example that sometimes people can change things for the better.

    1. I agree that it’s a great thing that transit advocates have finally achieved!

      I am left with two other thoughts though:

      1. It has taken lots of energy to do this — when it really shouldn’t have. It seems like a non-controversial action that really boils down to funding and fare policy. It should have been brought into the Orca system all along. I would even say that a monorail takeover by ST should have been considered in ST2 or ST3. If this took so much, how can something slightly more capital-intensive like more escalators and elevators ever get done by grass-roots support alone?

      2. I think hockey combined with SLU traffic were huge cofactors. Fans cannot get to Seattle Center easily from most of the region. Even though the Orca integration is a great idea, I’m not sure if it would have happened without the catalyst driven by these two factors.

      1. The first issue has to do with the specific timing and special circumstances surrounding the monorail. It is not run by the city. It is run by a private contractor. Every ten years that contractor signs an agreement with the city. The same contractor — Seattle Monorail Services — has operated the monorail since 1994. I don’t think they have any competition. For the most part, this didn’t matter. They run it, the city and the contractor split the profits — that is that. There was no interest in changing this relationship until weeks before the new contract was signed. The city council was ready to rubber stamp the same old agreement, until folks on this blog stepped in. That changed everything.

        The contractor didn’t like it. They were happy with the old system, even though this change will likely get them more money. They were also in a pretty strong bargaining position. The city doesn’t want to run it, nor does the county, nor ST. Everyone involved prefers the relationship as is (with a contractor). Again, there was no other contractor willing to step in and do the work (with or without ORCA support). The proposed change was also taking place at the 11th hour. Some companies don’t like change — companies that don’t like change really hate last minute changes. But because folks on this blog were completely unaware of the situation until the last minute, that is the way it went down. (I had no idea who ran the monorail until I started asking about it, next thing you know ,there is a letter writing campaign).

        This explains why it took so long. The Seattle City Council wasn’t even clear what they wanted — they just wanted ORCA support. If you read many of the comments, they were asking for the same type of service as that offered by the ferries. You can use your ORCA card, but it will cost you. Transfers aren’t free, and even if you have a monthly pass, it isn’t free. Other people (including me) wanted more. We wanted it to be treated like any other bus. Transfers are free, and if you have a monthly pass, you aren’t charged.

        This all had to be sorted out, at the last minute, while the contractor wanted none of it. So they compromised, and first decided to study it. The contractor has dragged its feet, but this is finally happening.

        As for the hockey team, I don’t think it has anything to do with it. This all started long before there was any promise of a hockey team, or any idea where they would play. When this thing started, the thought was that an arena would be built in SoDo, next to the other stadiums. It is quite likely that the hockey team will drive further improvements (in both headways as well as access) but to this point, it hasn’t influenced anything. The fact that you have to hand your ORCA card to the cashier is proof of that. Doing that won’t work when you have thousands of people lined up, ready to get to the game (or go home). Things will change, but this first step — this crucial step — has nothing to do with hockey (or basketball, for that matter). It has everything to do with citizens who read this blog writing to their representatives, and those representatives listening.

      2. The problem is the city’s overall attitude toward transit and how that affects plans and outcomes over the past two decades and still now. A city that makes a firm commitment to transit/ped/bike first and cars last would make different decisions, and that would include the role of the monorail.

        The monorail is also suffering the lingering impact of the failed monorail 2 project. In 2000 a Ballard-West Seattle monorail was going to replace or run parallel to the Alweg monorail (depending on whether it was on 5th or 2nd), and for several years the city was planning around that, then it imploded and nothing took its place and the status quo bias crept back into dominance. Then Ballard-West Seattle Link came around, and at the last minute (just a few months before the vote) it was rerouted to SLU so the monorail would be more redundant. The city hasn’t quite digested all the ramifications of a Link line along Westlake to SLU. This push to make the monorail ORCA-compatible and transfer-compatible has existed for a long time, but I didn’t see enough activism to move the needle until this year. The city is also in a period of flux, with new more urban-minded councilmembers, recent and upcoming transit changes, a major increase in downtown/SLU jobs and non-car commuting, and now the hockey team and the need for transit capacity to Key Arena, all converging at the same time.

        The main holdup on ORCAizing the monorail was the subsidy it would require, while the monorail currently makes a profit (and is the only transit mode to do so). I don’t think the contractor matters that much because the city owns the monorail and decides how much it should charge and what the subsidy/profit will be. The city also has many other urgent concerns that need money, and a public who is only moderately supportive of more taxes. Still, the new councilmembers, the organized activism of STB, and the need for hockey transit broke through the jogjam. That’s something. What it suggests for other transit concerns I don’t know, other than that combining transit activists’ desire with another city priority to kill two birds with one stone gets results.

      3. Is it still Key Arena? I can’t remember if the Coliseum name is coming back. Hopefully.

      4. I don’t think the contractor matters that much because the city owns the monorail and decides how much it should charge and what the subsidy/profit will be.

        I think it makes all the difference in the world. The point being (as I wrote) that you have two parties (one public, one private) and everything has to be negotiated, every ten years. That is the thing about this — the timing was crazy. We could have had the same conversation (comment thread) six months later, and it would have been too late. We could beg the Seattle Monorail Services all we want, but they would be under no obligation to do anything. At least not when the contract is up, which is over five years from now.

        Of course the city could take over operations, but I doubt they would do that. There has been no interest in the past, so I don’t expect them to do that now (or five years from now).

      5. @Mike — Apparently the official name is the Seattle Center Arena, which I find confusing, since the now demolished Mercer Arena used to be called the Seattle Center Arena. My guess is the name will be temporary, until they find a sponsor. Personally, I prefer they name it after someone (Lenny Wilkens Arena would be nice, even if is initially used for hockey).

      6. Argh. The Coliseum used to be the Coliseum and the Arena the Arena. Then when KeyBank apparently insisted on KeyArena, the other arena had to be renamed to the Mercer Arena. Still confusing. Now after everything, they can’t revive the memorable name coliseum and call the arena the arena? Can’t they see that “[Sponsor Name] Coliseum” would be good marketing on TV, and be unique to Seattle like the Space Needle rather than one of a thousand arenas?

  4. If you’ve chosen the Monorail as your mode of transit from Westlake to the Seattle Center, I’d say check your attitude and impatience at the door. It’s supposed to be a novelty tourist ride, not the transporter on the USS Enterprise.

    1. No, Sam, that is where you are wrong. It is viewed by many ignorant people — including you apparently — as a novelty tourist ride. But it is a good public transportation option for many. That explains why it took so long for them to accept ORCA cards. It wasn’t until a letter writing campaign (the birth of which happened right in this comment section) that the Seattle City Council become aware of the value of the monorail as pubic transportation, and things changed.

    2. The city never said residents couldn’t use it for regular trips. It has long had a monthly pass. Why would a line that’s supposed to be a novelty tourist ride have a monthly pass? Because some people commute from Lower Queen Anne, others park in the Mercer garage, and others work at Seattle Center. Maybe even some at the Gates Foundation use it.

      The nostalgia tourist aspect is what drives most of the ridership and pays the bills, but that’s not all it’s for.

    3. For those traveling to places on the east side of Seattle Center, where transit coverage is relatively poor (Routes 3/4 are often bunched), it is a fast option. Gates Foundation is looking to expand soon, and it would be a lot easier to get their employees out of the cars with the monorail now accepting monthly ORCA passes.

      1. The Gates Foundation is planned to dissolve 25 years after both Bill and Melinda die. It has to spend all its money by then to avoid becoming a perpetual endowment dinosaur. What will happen to the building then? How easily can it be converted to other offices or another use? It’s kind of a unique hulking monstrosity, not designed for other uses. Of course it could be turn down and replaced with more conventional building(s).

      2. The Gates Foundation is relatively close, and one would imagine further construction in that area now that the street grid has been reconnected and the tunnel is done. That area will be relatively well served by the monorail. The station isn’t particularly close at all to LQA, however, and under nearly all circumstances taking any one of a number of buses on Third to First Avenue W would be substantially faster to that area (and even to the Coliseum/Arena/whatever). Right now, at midday, the D/1/2/13 operate at between 1 and 5 minute headways.

        There is rarely if ever a delay on Third as far north as Denny, and a transit lane on First W would take care of the rest of it (perhaps some of the arena’s transportation fund can pay for that). The transfer from Link to the myriad of buses on Third at University Street Station is faster than that from Westlake Station to the Monorail as well.

        I love the Monorail and work in the heart of downtown, but am hard-pressed to see going down into a Link station, riding a stop or two to Westlake, traveling all the way from the Link platform to the Monorail platform, then walking to wherever I’m actually going from the middle of Seattle Center being faster than just waiting for the 3 or 4 on Third. In fact, even for say the QFC on Fifth and Mercer, it’s 0.5 miles walk from the D/1/2/13 stop at First/Republican and 0.4 miles from the Monorail. If I’m going to the west side of the Center or to LQA itself, I wouldn’t even consider it except for fun.

    4. The more we can leverage the monorail for peak commuting the better, because the visitors’ peak is midday and weekends. If an event is scheduled in the late afternoon and the monorail gets overcrowded, commuters can more easily switch to a peripheral bus route that avoids the lines, and leave room for those unfamiliar with the alternatives.

  5. I’ve always looked at the monorail as a horizontal elevator between Westlake Station and Seattle Center.

    Same with Tacoma LINK streetcar in its present form, connecting Tacoma Dome Station and Downtown Tacoma.

    If needed now, second cashier with reader should work just fine. But today’s announcement is progress, and glad to finally see it.


  6. I still think it’s silly that the monorail costs more than any Metro ride, a 1-county ST bus ride, or any Link ride except UW-airport. But I’m glad the monorail finally got with the program and joined the ORCA pod.

  7. By the way, also curious, as well as embarrassed for losing track: what are the latest plans for putting Ballard-West Seattle Link through Westlake Station? Any details available yet?


    1. It will be at Westlake Station, on additional platforms adjacent to the existing ones. Exactly where the platforms will be and what the transfer will be like I don’t know and there hasn’t been any decision. The last we know about the line is the new options, whose feedback period just closed. The board will decide on the preferred alternative and the other EIS alternatives sometime next year if it’s able to reach a conclusion by then.

      The widespread support for the Ballard and West Seattle tunnels, the fact that they’d need third-party funding, the widely differing views on Intl Dist Station, the widely different implementations in SODO and their impact on Metro’s base and busway, and the other subareas’ insistence that Everett and Tacoma not be thrown off-schedule, are all an unprecedented number of issues and tradeoffs with stakeholders on all sides, so it may take longer than deciding the central alignment or southern Bellevue.

  8. For now it is called the Arena at Seattle Center but the OVG group which is paying for the remodeling and will also own the NHL team will sell the name rights to the arena before it reopens in 2021. They probable also sell the name rights for their practice facility that they are going to built at the Northgate Mall similar to the Seahawks facility in Renton the VMAC which is short for Virginia Mason Athletic Center. Virginia Mason will have a clinic at Northgate when the practice facility opens. The practice facility will consist of 3 full size skating rinks which will also be open to the community for youth hockey, figure skating and other events. There will also be restaurants and bars with the facility.

    This is what NHL Seattle is building and then Simon will remodel the rest of the mall and part of that will be apartments, an office building and 400,000 square feet of shops. When finished the mall look more like University Village with greenery and walking trails.

  9. Got a feeling that “adjacent” will mean “vertically under” existing platforms, served by escalators and elevators. With moving trains and their passengers at close proximity to the digging.

    Precisely because this will be such a complicated project, Seattle Transit Blog will draw much gratitude by geting close to it as possible, as soon as possible. From the beginning.

    Amount of time taken by Seattle projects always draws a lot of comment. Which should take into account the number of people whose opinion every project has to consider. These things go faster where fewer people are used to holding more power, and being subject to fewer questions.

    The way I see it, most interesting things about our approaching work will result from the new age-group moving up to run the city at all levels. Literally from sub-basements to penthouse offices, in addition to governmental and business positions.

    So, the sooner and more thoroughly everybody familiarizes with and understands what’s going on, less infuriating these coming years will be. Reason I keep insisting on work drawings in section instead of only “plan” view.

    Transfer at (meaning under) from present North Link to West Seattle- Ballard will only show meaningfully in section.

    Mark Dublin

  10. OneBusAway claims that the monorail runs every 6 minutes. Is that not correct. Is there a schedule somewhere so we can see when the trains will actually run? It would be nice to know whether it’s necessary to run up the stairs in order to catch a train.

      1. Right. But, there’s still the separate issue that OneBusAway claims the Monorail runs every 6 minutes, when the monorail’s own website clearly states it comes every 10 minutes.

  11. My calculator tells me that the Monorail is now 57 years old. Which if it’s well-designed, -built, and -maintained, says nothing negative about it.

    So should be nothing disrespectful in some inquiries about not only its present condition, but much more important, Seattle’s plans for the trains’ future.

    Does Metro still have its fleet of historic buses? And if so, might the Monorail be able to gain some benefit from being incorporated into it? In every essential, aren’t these trains as much electric buses as if they had trolley-poles?

    Since their service is pretty much irreplaceable, never too soon, or often, to consider their years to come. Chapter would also be welcome on the lessons their operating years have taught us.

    Mark Dublin

    1. I’ve ridden on all four railways owned by the government of the Isle of Man. Almost everything they have is from the 1870s through 1930s. Given sufficient interest, you can keep anything operating.

      The limiting factor is how well were the components selected during this last rebuilt? For example, did they go with standard NEMA frame electric motors or something custom. If standard frame, then hundreds of replacement options are available and probably always will be because one is a standard drop in replacement for any other.

      The same goes for the rubber tires, the door operating mechanism, the control switches, etc. Those are all things that wear out over time. The more of that where standard parts were used, the easier it will be to make it last longer.

  12. I like the picture in the Monorail website hat shows an entrance on Pine. I’ve stood in front of Westlake Center near the Starbucks stand and been asked many times where the Monorail is. You would be very surprised how hidden it seems to be if you are not from here. Even with gps. This entrance, if built, seems better.

  13. Love that it can accept ORCA now, BUT forcing commuters to stand in line with cash-paying tourists to tap their ORCA card is a really crappy implementation of this. After special events when the line for the cashier at Seattle Center goes out of the station will also discourage people from attempting to use it as a real transportation option. Hopefully this is fixed soon.

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