Thursday, April 22, 2010

ORCA Turns One Year Old

Besides the 40th anniversary of Earth Day today there is another local birthday this week. One Regional Card for All, the regional transit smart card turns one year old!

Last year on April 20 I hosted a press conference in Seattle with Candace Carlson, the Regional Fare Coordination System Program Administrator, to introduce ORCA to customers. We discussed the “limited rollout” that lasted into September, when early adopters were invited to get a card, try it out and let us know their experience.

The limited rollout concept was proposed because we didn’t want to overwhelm the system with too many transactions off the bat, and we didn’t know what the extent of customer assistance new ORCA users would need. It was more than a Beta test, since we were using customers’ money, but we knew there were bugs that only a good supply of transit users could help us find.

In July 2009, Microsoft became one of the first business accounts to convert from FlexPass to ORCA, and the number of cards being used in the system grew tremendously. Business Accounts are employers who supply all employees with a transit pass, even those who may not use them. Hundreds of businesses have used FlexPass for years, and their conversion to ORCA is now almost complete.

On September 15, Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl and general managers from the other transportation agencies heralded ORCA’s “Big Splash” with a call for all transit users to switch to ORCA.

(Remember Steve the ORCA greeting attendees then mysteriously disappearing for awhile? It was a hot day for mascots!)

A couple of key milestones have occurred since then. December 2009 was the last month that paper Puget Passes were sold to the public. This was an important move since some other agencies around the country that have implemented smart card systems continued to sell their regular passes and, as a result, had low conversion rates. Eliminating the paper passes is good for the environment and saves the agencies money, which is one of the goals of ORCA.

Also, at the end of the year Community Transit and Sound Transit joined Everett Transit and Kitsap Transit in eliminating all paper transfers. This meant it was cash or ORCA, and ORCA was the only way to get a two-hour transfer on those systems. King County Metro Transit and Pierce Transit still offer paper transfers that are good on their systems only.

This week, Kitsap Transit reinstated paper transfers for the rest of this year because it is having a difficult time converting its low income fare customers. This is a fare category unique to KT and requires registration like an RRFP card, so those riders must get the card in person.

Community Transit is happy with the “ORCA is your transfer” policy, and we have seen many cash customers switch to ORCA in 2010. We did a lot of outreach, including having our drivers hand out 4,000 blank ORCA cards to cash customers last December. Also, when we launched Swift – which does not take paper transfers – last November, many of our riders on that corridor made the decision to get a card. This year we’re continuing to push for more converts to ORCA.

So, what’s there to celebrate on ORCA’s first birthday?

Well, there are about 150,000 active ORCA cards out there, and many more in circulation. Also, there are nearly 200,000 average daily transactions on the ORCA system. That’s pretty good for the first year!

ORCA is meant to be a convenience. Transit riders no longer have to carry exact change and can use the same card to transfer between different transportation systems, whether you have a pass or not. Riders can load their ORCA card with a variety of period passes, like a monthly pass, or put cash value in an E-purse and draw down with each trip. Our drivers love ORCA because fare payment is quicker and simpler than before.

So, does ORCA work perfectly for every user all the time? No. And my Blackberry service goes out from time to time too. But for such a complex system with so many users there have been a lot of fixes in this first year, and the vast majority of regular users are finding success.

You can get more information about ORCA at or by visiting

What do you think of ORCA?


  1. Read about ORCA from a driver's perspective at:

  2. I've already gone through two ORCA cards because the chips stopped working. They would work fine on ST, but not on CT, even with a monthly $2.50 PugetPass loaded. By "not working" I don't mean they pulled funds out of the e-purse instead of using the pass, I mean the card flat out did not work.

    There is also a lot of driver confusion. Once, when boarding a ST bus operated by CT, I was told I needed to pay an extra $1.00 fare. At that point, I had moved and was loading a $1.50 pass, but had my e-purse set up for multi-zone rides on ST or MT. If I can tell based on the simplified display on the ORCA reader that it took my $1.50 pass and an extra $1.00 from the e-purse, why can't the driver? I told him that the card had read correctly and that I wasn't paying the extra dollar. He could easily have called the Sheriff or had me thrown off the bus, all because he did not understand how ORCA works!

    Unfortunately we are still dealing with multiple agencies that have different fare tables. Until those are all harmonized, I foresee continued confusion on behalf of both operators and passengers.