What you need to know about changes coming to the ORCA fare card system

In just two weeks, the Puget Sound region’s ORCA transit fare card system will migrate to new software, requiring thousands of transit users to create or reestablish their payment accounts.

The new website, www.myorca.com, launches May 16. The website currently has explanations of the changes ahead and tips on how to prepare.

ORCA (One Regional Card for All) was established in 2009 and operates on King County Metro Transit, Sound Transit, Washington State Ferries, Pierce Transit, Community Transit, Everett Transit, Kitsap Transit, King County Water Taxi, Seattle Center Monorail, and Seattle Streetcar. About 400,000 passengers per weekday paid with fare cards as of late 2019.

The new system will let transit customers instantly add money to their fare accounts, instead of fund transfers taking a couple of days, a constant source of public frustration, agency officials said.

The weekend of May 14-15 will be fare-free for transit and walk-on ferry passengers as the system changeover occurs. 

All individual customers, as well as businesses who provide employee passes, must reestablish payment accounts using the new website. About 175,000 individuals and 1,900 businesses who handle auto-pay ORCA accounts need to do that within two weeks of the new site launching if they need June passes by June 1, according to Sound Transit spokesperson Scott Thompson. Previous payments will carry over.

A new MyORCA app will also be available May 16 for both Apple and Android devices, enabling people to load card value or arrange autopay by phone.

Customers holding employer-sponsored passes need not take action now, but the 1,100-plus participating companies need to register on the new website. The current site, www.orcacard.biz, expires May 12.

The “New ORCA” cards will be black, like the resident whales. However, people holding the 1 million or so blue cards now in circulation may keep using those.

Both the black and blue cards will function at the existing 6,000 or so yellow kiosks at curbsides and stations. About 250 retail stores, twice as many as before, will distribute fare cards, for $3 plus the initial fare people prepay.

The low-income ORCALift program, where enrollees can ride for a flat rate of $1.50 per trip, will continue as usual. If transit agencies decide to reduce the rate to $1, as is being considered by Sound Transit, the new system can be reprogrammed to accomplish that in two to three weeks, said Chris McKnight, a marketing manager for INIT, the project contractor.

Plans are afoot to launch a “tap by phone” option in 2023 that lets riders substitute a phone-screen image for the plastic card when catching a transit ride.

If Sound Transit and King County Metro bring back fare enforcement officers, who were removed in mid-2020 because of unequal impacts on Black and homeless riders, the privacy of card users won’t be much different from before. When passengers comply with instruction to show their ORCA, fare officers would see only the account number and a payment status, officials said.

A significant share of INIT’s $80 million, seven-year capital contract pays for network and software capacity that’s going unused in 2022, but will allow flexibility for future ORCA functions, said Brittany Esdaile, ORCA director for Sound Transit. The original contract was $60 million with options for a 15-year, $53 million service agreement.

Other possible uses for ORCA cards have been discussed for years, including paying for park-and-ride space if agencies someday enact daily fees; spending in cafes and other shops like riders can do with the Hong Kong Octopus Card; or tapping for other mobility services, such as ride-hailing or scooter rentals.

Esdaile said the project team needed to launch the next-generation ORCA now, rather than wait for leaders to vote on more uses. Supplies are no longer available for the old version, and the agencies need enough time to install yellow readers in future stations, before Lynnwood, Redmond and Federal Way light-rail extensions open in 2024.

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