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.
With buses leaving the tunnel Saturday, there is no particular reason to be on the platform without a paid fare. Therefore, Sound Transit will consider the platform a fare-paid zone beginning Saturday.
“ORCA readers will be removed later, during the rollout of Next Gen ORCA,” said ST’S Kimberly Reason.
As trains get ever more crowded, the platform will become the most practical place to enforce fares at certain times of day.
At its March meeting Monday, the Regional Fare Coordination Committee, a.k.a. ORCA Joint Board, unanimously approved an agreement that would allow the Seattle Center Monorail to start accepting ORCA payments.
The estimated start date for ORCA on the monorail is Metro’s September service change. In the meantime, the monorail has started accepting debit/credit card payment.
Portland TriMet recently rolled out the first-of-its-kind-in-the-US “virtual” smart card. The virtual Hop Fastpass account requires use of GooglePay on an Android smartphone, but doesn’t require getting or using a physical Hop Fastpass. The smartphone accessing the account provides all the functionality of the physical Hop Fastpass, using the same motion of briefly holding the phone against the card reader.
TriMet has become the US transit industry’s leader in accessible fare collection in multiple ways:
It is the only agency with daily and monthly fare caps (only available on Hop Fastpass).
It is the only agency that allows smart phones to provide the same functionality as smart cards, without having to get a smart card.
TriMet is trailing the industry in one regard, though: the price of its smart card. TriMet charges the third-highest fee in the country for its transit smart card – $3 – with only the ORCA card and Anchorage People Mover’s Smart Card (each $5) costing more. As I’ve documented multiple times, the industry standard is to make transit smart cards available for free, or free after rebating any fee into the card’s e-purse.
Now, citing what reads like a bizarre social justice concern troll, TriMet is charging for the “virtual Hop Fastpass card”, even while saving the cost of producing and distributing physical cards.
To keep the Hop system equitable for all users, virtual Hop cards will cost the same as physical Hop cards – $3. To date, TriMet has distributed more than 90,000 Hop cards free of charge at community events and to community-based organizations and employers.
With the current ORCA system “near end of life,” upgrading the ORCA card system is estimated to cost roughly $125m, according to Scott Gutierrez, a King County Metro Transit spokesperson.
The ORCA agencies are predicted to share the entire cost, with $95m predicted to be the region-wide cost with the other $30m related to agency-specific costs for implementing next-generation ORCA. Gutierrez said the sharing formula is mostly based on ridership projections through 2021. Exceptions include products that apply only to certain agencies, such as paratransit-specific fare products which will be shared only among the agencies that offer paratransit services.
In comparison, the current ORCA system cost $88m in today’s dollars to implement in 2009, according to ORCA documents. Brittany Esdaile, a program manager at Sound Transit, said at the November 13 ORCA Joint Board meeting “the cost is fair and reasonable” and implementing the new system will be “a bigger effort this time around as the region has grown.”
The concept and design for Next Generation ORCA (ngORCA) has not changed from when it was announced as ORCA2 in 2015 but we now know in greater detail how it will work. Specifications for Next Gen ORCA have been published on the project’s website for people who want to dive deep into the system. As the document is intended for the vendor that will implement and operate the system, it covers every aspect imaginable. I have selected a few notable features that will make you look forward to Next Gen ORCA when it launches in 2021.
Accounts and Credentials
Next Gen ORCA is an accounts-based system. I explained what that means and how it differs from today’s ORCA in the ORCA2 post. The key feature of this change is eliminating the 24-hour delay between purchasing fare online and being able to use it. The delay is eliminated thanks to real time communication between validators in the field and your account in the backend.
Addressing the ORCA Joint Board Monday, Cheryl Huston, ORCA Regional Program Administrator, said there was agreement among ORCA’s participating agencies to keep the card fee for adult and youth riders but reduce the one-time charge from $5 to $3.
Currently, each ORCA card costs an agency $1.92 plus tax, according to Huston.
King County Metro Transit has estimated that lowering ORCA card fees for adult and youth riders to $3 would cost the agency $700,000 per year in card revenue.
Earlier this week, STB analyzed the impact completely eliminating card fees would have on Metro’s budget.
“The fee helps cover the cost of purchasing the cards and administration costs,” wrote Geoff Patrick, a spokesperson for Sound Transit, in an email. “Having a value attached to these reloadable cards also avoids the perception they are disposable. That is a perception that would increase costs of the ORCA program. These are cards that can and should last many years.
Huston said ORCA managers also want to simplify the card replacement fee by charging the same to both adult and youth riders. ORCA Lift cards are issued at no charge.
However, the proposal will also likely reduce or eliminate the card fee for the Regional Reduced Fare Permit (RRFP), a regional pass for seniors 65+, riders with a qualifying disability, and Medicare cardholders that works on several systems within the region.
Huston said King County supports eliminating the RRFP card fee entirely, but other agencies were more hesitant.
The Regional Fare Coordination Board (ORCA Joint Board) has been working toward a new version of the ORCA product to be rolled out in 2021, currently dubbed “Next Generation ORCA”. As part of the new product, London-style daily caps on fares were high on the list of elements to be considered for development, with software development to commence in 2018.
The Regional Transit Committee, a panel of elected officials from around the county that has some authority to block council decisions on policies covering King County Metro, recently gave its green light to a report from a 2016 Fare Forum convened by the ORCA Joint Board. While referring the report to the RTC was not mandatory, it is a common practice to keep that panel in the loop.
• Eliminate zone-based fares in order to reduce Next Generation ORCA system development time and costs, reduce customer confusion, reduce operator interactions, and improve boarding times.
• Eliminate trip-based peak fares but allow for time-based peak fares in the ORCA system design, in order to reduce Next Generation ORCA system development time and costs, increase regional fare coordination, and make fares simpler for customers to understand.
• Not to pursue fare capping because it could increase Next Generation ORCA system design complexity and costs and is expected to negatively impact agency revenue.
This recommendation not only means the ORCA pod does not plan to institute day caps, but also that it will not even develop the software to make it an option. The intent is not to preclude such a feature, but developing it would cost additional money down the road.
In my post on ORCA2 a few weeks ago, I used target dates from documents included in Sound Transit’s contractor request, which according to ST staff, were incorrect. Current ST plans have ORCA2 starting to go live in 2020, not 2019. New equipment will begin appearing in late 2019, not 2018. The old system will be turned off by 2021, not 2020. ST’s Geoff Patrick told me that “we’re still very early in the program, and it’s possible the dates may change.”
The original post has been corrected with the changes marked.
[OV: post was edited on October 26 with clarification from ST on target dates, which may change as the program progresses]
Paying for transit will be easier and more flexible with an improved user experience when “ORCA2”, the second generation of the ORCA regional fare system, is planned to go live in 2019. Although ORCA has matured to become the most popular way to pay fares in Central Puget Sound since its launch in 2009, there is much left to be desired from customers and operators.
Fare collection technology has advanced greatly since the original system began development in 2003. Innovations such as mobile apps and open payments with credit cards and smartphones are being adopted by various agencies across the country. With the current contract with ORCA vendor Vix ending in 2021 and the system’s technology becoming obsolete, the ORCA Joint Board began planning for the system’s next generation last year and has adopted a strategy for ORCA2.
Sound Transit revealed the strategy in a request for proposal (RFP) from firms to lead the development and implementation of ORCA2. The ORCA Next Generation Strategy discusses options and makes recommendations in four main areas: fare policy, system architecture and technology, the transition to the new system, and governance/administration models for the new system.
The biggest change in ORCA2 is the move to an account-based system. This means online card refills will be usable instantly, not after 24-48 hours like today’s ORCA. What’s the difference? Currently, ORCA is a card-based system where value is stored on the card itself. Fare transactions are processed offline by the card reader/writer on board vehicles and at stations. The delay in getting value purchased online on to your card is due to the fact that the readers speak with the backend only nightly, when the buses return to base.
An account-based system takes the opposite approach. As the name suggests, information is stored in an account in a central location, like your bank account. All transactions are processed centrally and in real time. Your card becomes merely an identifier of the account to the reader, like your credit or debit card. Chicago and London equipped their buses with 3G wireless communication to enable real-time processing.
Per Rochelle Ogershok at King County, the ORCA Joint Board is considering adjusting the regular and youth card fees ($5), with a decision expected in the next two months. The Regional Reduced Fare Permit card fee ($3) is set by an interlocal agreement among all the members of the ORCA pod, plus a few more agencies outside the pod, so that fee is not being looked at.
It should come as a shock to nobody that children disproportionately live in poverty. Indeed, the annual count done by Kids Count Data Center has the portion of children under 18 in Washington living below 200% of the federal poverty level hovering closely around 40%. That number contrasts with 28% of the state’s adult population qualifying as below 200% of the federal poverty level.
The ORCA Lift program’s eligibility threshold is 200% of the federal poverty level. However, the card is for adults. The fare structure, on the services that accept the LIFT ORCA, has the LIFT fare identical to the youth fare, at least when using ORCA.
One difference is the card fee. King County opted to not have a fee for the LIFT ORCA. The $5 youth card fee remains in place.
Many public school students get a free card, and loaded passes, through their school district. In those cases, the school district is assumedly eating the card cost.
Nearly every transit service in the ORCA pod allows riders 6-18 to pay the youth fare just by paying that amount of cash. The King County WaterTaxis are the exception. So, there is little incentive to get the card, unless it is being offered for free through one’s school.
The agencies want to partially recuperate the administrative costs of card production and distribution. Of course, the agencies will probably save more in bus travel time speed-ups by simply offering the card for free. The main differences between the regular and youth administrative calculations is that youth card distribution is a little more expensive, and the transit agencies would end up charging the school districts less. (This would not necessarily be a bad result, if we want school district money to be spent first and foremost on education.) Also, there is little reason to believe youth cardholders would treat the card as disposable or swiftly replaceable.
The ORCA Joint Board may look to the $3 RRFP card fee (which is actually a “permit fee”, with the card technically being free) as a philosophical reason for keeping the regular card fee at least $3. However, there is nothing in law requiring that the RRFP permit or card fee be no higher than the regular card fee. Again, it comes down to gambling lots of service hours that people will readily pay $3 for the card rather than continue just paying with cash, years of evidence (See page 13.) to the contrary. And it would still leave ORCA as easily the most expensive bus smart card in the USA if one doesn’t count Utah Transit Authority’s Fare Pay, which exists only because not every rider has contactless debit/credit cards, which are readily accepted on UTA services.
Nor does the RRFP interlocal agreement pre-empt having $3 of e-purse pre-loaded on each new RRFP ORCA card.
As the county council urges King County Metro Transit to look for more change in the couch, it is time for the county council to consider finally embracing ORCA. For reals. The extra 4.5 to 6.7 seconds it takes for a cash fumbler to board (vs. tapping an ORCA card) adds up, especially when it happens downtown with a dozen buses held up behind the bus on which the rider is fumbling change.
Here are nine awesome policy changes the county council could enact, thanks to the low-income ORCA program removing the excuse that these policies could somehow hurt poor riders. Bring on the efficiency!
1. Enact an ORCA discount / cash surcharge on every other category of fare payer. Where possible, round the cash fare to the next dollar up. King CountyFerries and the Low-Income ORCA have paved the way for charging more for cash fares than ORCA fares.
2. Eliminate paper transfers and the cottage mass fare evasion industry that has evolved around them. Keep paper slips only for use on fare-enforced buses (i.e. RapidRide), good only on that one trip.
3. Remove the peak / off-peak differential. The differential has been ineffective at pushing riders to ride off-peak, and now will be a discount for non-low-income riders off-peak, since the low-income fare doesn’t change by time of day.
4. Ban cash payment at bus doors in the transit tunnel. Add more ORCA Boarding Assistants where needed to smoothe out boarding bottlenecks. Moving some buses from the overcrowded Bay A to Bay B will also help, or just move up the timetable for having only one bay per platform.
5. Turn 3rd Ave into a proof-of-payment / fare inspection zone, with cash payment at the door banned. Riders can handle the one-time inconvenience of going to get an ORCA. Low-income riders will have gone through much more hassle than that.
6. Create an express fare, as suggested in the American Public Transportation Association’s peer review of Metro (p.8). Low-income riders on those routes will already be paying a flat fare, so Title VI shouldn’t be an issue for routes going to poorer suburbs. This express fare would help improve some performance measurements, most notably fare recovery.
7. Create a separate, higher DART fare, or a diversion fare, as suggested in APTA’s peer review. (p.8)
8. Create a low-income Access fare, set at the current regular Access fare, and raise the non-low-income Access fare all the way up to the same as the regular peak fare ($2.75 after March 2015). Tack on a cash payment surcharge matching the cash surcharge on the regular buses, so that riders have an incentive to take advantage of the pre-payment program. Do like many other agencies are doing, and give Access riders and a companion the freedom to ride the fixed routes for free. This might actually yield the largest operational savings in the whole list.
9. Now that there is no card fee for the low-income ORCA, eliminate the $5 card fee for everyone else, and require at least $5 of loaded ORCA product to be purchased when getting a new card. 8 of the 17 bus smart cards around the country are free after rebates, and the rest cost no more than $2.
The problem with riders nonchalantly throwing out ORCA cards will now be just among riders who don’t have a low-income ORCA, so target the don’t-throw-way-your-ORCA incentives to the middle-to-upper-income demographic.
A general fare restructure proposal that may include some action on these recommendations is expected to go the county council in the next couple months.
At a recent forum sponsored by the Transportation Choices Coalition, a couple of committee members – Kate Joncas of the Downtown Seattle Association, and Alison Eisinger from the Seattle Coalition on Homelessness – were joined by Metro project director Doug Hodson to discuss the recommendations.
The recommendations, some of the discussion from the panel, and analysis, are below the fold.
Metro released a report on strategies to increase access to ORCA cards. The report looks at the current state of ORCA market penetration, who’s using ORCA, who’s not and why, what the agency has done so far to increase use, and what more can be done. Short term plans and opportunities for the next year include: more retail outlets, more outreach, simplified procedures for conducting promotions, more TVMs, considering day passes and disposable cards. Long-term strategies include: fare incentives and new technologies like payment with contactless credit cards and mobile phones. All of these are discussed in the report. Some highlights are presented below.
Key message from customer feedback and Metro’s Rider/Non-Rider Survey: “youths, seniors, and people who have disabilities, limited English proficiency, low incomes, or no bank accounts often find it difficult to get and add value to ORCA cards. The $5 card fee is often cited as a barrier to ORCA use.”
The report gives the reason why we haven’t seen a day pass considered until now: “Before the ORCA system was launched, the ORCA Joint Board … agreed not to introduce new fare products until ORCA was well-established.” Three years since launch, the agencies are reviewing regional day pass options (pricing and validity) with a goal for implementation towards the end of 2012. The report also explains how the day pass would work. No automatic pass/daily fare capping mechanism (patented) was mentioned.
Limited use (disposable) ORCA cards are being considered as a lower cost alternative for infrequent riders and visitors, not people with low incomes. The fee for issuing a limited-use ORCA card would be $2 compared to $5 for a standard card. That includes $1 for the card itself and another $1 in processing costs. The standard card itself costs $2.50.
Fare incentives include discounted e-purse fare and elimination of paper transfers. The e-purse “discount” would be achieved by raising cash fares. Metro notes that such changes would require it to perform an analysis of impacts on and mitigation for low-income or minority riders, as mandated by federal regulations.
On Monday, the ORCA Joint Board met for its monthly meeting to discuss the regional fare collection system’s technical, operational, and policy issues. There were a lot of things discussed which I have omitted for this report since I didn’t find them too interesting for the general public.
After a late start due to a special press conference on federal transit funding (which STB received very late notice of and no one made it there), the meeting started with one public comment, probably the first ever to the Joint Board. Deborah Seymour, a resident of Belltown, commented on the triple-fold increase in senior pass prices, the loss of the annual pass and resulting inconvenience of having to buy a new pass every month. King County Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond responded that the King County Council made the decision to increase fares and pass prices. Seymour had written to Councilmember Larry Phillips but didn’t receive a response. Desmond suggested she try the e-purse which may cost less than a pass depending on how often she rides and requires a single load for a year’s worth of rides.
Vix, the system vendor, reported that the migration of operations from Cubic in California is now complete. Cubic bought the US assets of ERG (now Vix) related to the Bay Area’s TransLink (now Clipper) Card project, some of which were shared with Seattle’s. All of ORCA’s operations are now in Seattle, fully under Vix’s control. This means better communication and support on the vendor’s part. For example, on-board card readers and driver display units (DDU) at the new Seattle-based workshop are now repaired in 2 days compared to 9 days from a year ago, on average.
On the ORCA Vision, key questions are how to fund additional work and how to move towards new technology. Desmond said Metro has hired the IBI Group to write a white paper to figure out “what would it take [for Metro] to go cashless?” The paper would answer what sort of policy, equipment, and direction they need to move towards a cashless system. Phase II of the work would be to write a business plan to place a dollar figure on potential changes for a budget request this summer. Work on the white paper is almost finished and is expected to be presented to the Joint Board in April.
The next Joint Board meeting is on March 12, 10:30 am at King Street Center 8th floor Conference Center.
ORCA’s Joint Board last week discussed changes and enhancements (“new work”) for the next round of implementation in June called Maintenance Release 18. Much of the new work in MR18 has to do with the website and streamlining customer service. Work to be implemented in March (MR 17) will affect back office operations: Autoload enhancements, bank holds, business account management, RapidRide card readers at stations, and transaction history.
Currently, routine Maintenance Releases are scheduled 4 times per year. Costs for new work are shared among the agencies using a complex formula based on the previous year’s ridership, except agency specific work. There is $1.5 million in the regional fund for system enhancement. The agencies will address funding beyond that amount during 2013 budget process.
Due to the publicity for this meeting, Sound Transit’s CEO, Joni Earl, opened the meeting expecting the first public comment to be ever given before the Joint Board. Alas, there was no public comment. The next Joint Board Meeting is on February 13, 2012, 10:30 am at King Street Center’s 8th floor conference center. This is your chance to let the managers and staff of all seven Puget Sound transit agencies know your thoughts about ORCA.
The ORCA regional fare coordination system has reached Full System Acceptance, meaning it is now ready for changes and additions. The ORCA card is now used by 3 out of every 5 transit riders in the Puget Sound region daily. According to Community Transit’s blog, “additions to the system can be made, whether it be new agencies coming on board, new products offered or new functionality for the ORCA cards.”
The Joint Board, which is composed of executives from the seven transit agencies participating in ORCA, will begin to look at possible changes and additions to the system. Feedback from the recently conducted customer survey is likely to be the starting point for discussion. They have seen preliminary results and are interested in the public’s response. The next ORCA Joint Board meeting will be held next Monday, January 9, from 10:30 am to noon in King Street Center’s 8th floor conference center. It is a public meeting so they will take comments from the public at the beginning of the meeting.
Other than improving the website, there are no specific changes or additions to functionality that I have been able to gather from transit officials but there is a new way for agencies to join the ORCA system. Sound Transit’s Geoff Patrick explains:
The Joint Board has approved an ‘Affiliates’ option where another agency can come in under the sponsorship of a current ORCA agency. We currently have the Port of Kingston, sponsored by Kitsap Transit. Intercity Transit is considering becoming an Affiliate, sponsored by Pierce Transit.
I’ve obtained the latest statistics on the ORCA system which will be presented and discussed in a future post.
“Your ORCA card works like cash or a pass, automatically tracking the value of different fares and transfers so you don’t have to.” —ORCA card website
This is the first in a series exploring the workings of ORCA based on communication with agency staff, contract documents and technical documents received by public records request. One of the key agency benefits of ORCA is automatic apportionment of fare revenues based on actual use. In this post, I am going to use examples to explain how the fare you pay is divvied up among the transit agencies. If you understand the chart above, then you pretty much get the general concept. Otherwise, read on for an explanation.
This Saturday, October 31, 2009, will be the last day Kitsap Transit issues paper transfers for cash paying customers. Beginning the next day, Sunday, November 1, cash paying customers must pay for each leg of their trip or use an ORCA card to receive a two-hour transfer. [Update: Commenter Mike F notes that there is no Sunday service in Kitsap Transit so the new policy will take effect on Monday.] ORCA cards can be obtained for free online or in person at various locations until the end of January 2010. The cards will cost $5 afterwards.
Kitsap Transit is not the first local transit agency to eliminate paper transfers. In 2006, Everett Transit stopped issuing paper transfers and reduced their fare by 25¢. With Everett Transit as part of the ORCA system, transfers are once again issued and honored. Community Transit and Sound Transit will follow Kitsap Transit in replacing paper transfers with ORCA cards beginning January 1, 2010. Also starting in the new year, ORCA will be the only way for cash paying customers to transfer between transit systems. So if your trip involves services from more than one agency and you pay your fare in cash, you’ll need to get an ORCA card and put money in your E-purse to get a two-hour transfer. While King County Metro and Pierce Transit will keep paper transfers for use within their systems, I recommend getting an ORCA card while they’re free.
Yes, the Ride Free Area can be confusing. Some routes you pay when you enter, others you pay when you leave. Sometimes riders paying with cash have to get a transfer on one side of downtown, and show it to the driver when leaving the bus on the other side of downtown. Seattle transit-types will boast that it’s not hard to figure out — but it certainly isn’t easy for new-comers. When I used to bus around Redmond, the handful of times I encountered a pay-as-you-leave bus I was completely lost.
But, it lets riders board and depart through all sets of doors while in downtown, the most congested part of the bus network. It does not cause revenue to be lost for Metro (the city and downtown business owners pick up the tab). And it makes the entire system operate more efficiently.
Read past the jump to see why we should keep the Ride Free Area around for now, and how we can get rid of it in the future.