Monthly Archives: December 2009

ORCA eats my OWL

Sick of scrounging around for three quarters every time I want to ride the bus (and always interested in trying some newfangled thing), I went online and got a free ORCA card (as of Feb. 2010, they cost $5). At first, it seems like ORCA is going to make taking the bus just a little bit easier. But after a few uses, I realized that ORCA is chock full of hidden costs.

No OWL Changes

This is by far the worst and most expensive change. ORCA keeps track of your transfers, so when you get on a second bus within two hours of paying your fare, it will not charge you a second time. This is nice because you don’t end up with tons of little, nearly identical pieces of paper in all your pockets (well, maybe this is a just a problem for me).

However, ORCA does not give you an OWL. If you are paying cash after 8:30 p.m. or so, you are issued a full transfer ticket that is good for the rest of the night AND even the first bus in the morning (if I am reading the first bullet on the back correctly. I’ve never actually made it to a first bus). But when you pay with an ORCA card, it gives you the standard two-hour transfer period. So, basically, every night you go out, it is twice as expensive to use ORCA instead of cash because your card gets charged twice.

UPDATE: OK, it appears that somewhere around 9:30, your ORCA scan does operate as an OWL transfer. On my test runs, it must have been right before 9:30, so my friends got OWL paper transfers, but I have to pay again. So I guess the issue is more about how computers are cold and exact. It’s good to know that it does work, though, so long as you don’t get on right before the computer clicks over…

From Seattle Transit Blog

To do some quick math, if you go out four evenings a week, that’s an extra $28/month, or $336/year, versus paying cash. That’s a ridiculous amount of money for the convenience of just swiping your fare. It seems like this would be an incredibly easy software fix on ORCA’s part, but I think they would probably rather have my $336 instead.

Pay as you leave

Because of the free ride area in downtown Seattle, buses leaving downtown are typically pay-as-you-leave. Paper transfers state that they are good so long as you BOARD the bus before the time shown. If you pay with ORCA, however, it doesn’t matter when you got on. If you scan your card on the way out just 2:01 after you paid the first time, you get charged again. When it’s rush hour, that’s another $2 every time this happens. So there you sit, in traffic on Aurora, contemplating getting off early just so you don’t get charged again.

I am going to start asking for paper transfers when I pay with ORCA to see if any drivers are OK with it. I will report back in a bit with my results.

Cards cost $5

Starting in Feb, 2010, ORCA cards costs $5. They also cost $5 to replace if they are lost, as Erica at Publicola points out. Why they would charge $5 for a card that will make them more money the more people use it, I cannot understand.

I have also read that ORCA deactivates your card if you don’t use it for 30 days, though I have not yet gone that long to test it. In these cases, people had trouble getting their E-Purse money back, which sounds like a huge headache. I was planning on just keeping a little money on the card for cases where I can’t find change, but even that sounds like it might be trouble.

UPDATE: Oran from the Seattle Transit Blog has clarified the 30 days issue in the comments:

The tap within 30 days rule only applies to people who load their card online or over the phone. Due to the way the system works, which is now explained on the (crappy) ORCA website in the FAQ > ORCA Tips. Once you tap your card, the value is transferred to it and stays there forever. I got and put money (in person) on an ORCA card on the first day it came out. I’ve gone months without using it and my money is still there.

If you load your card in person, either at a ticket machine or service office, you don’t have the 30 day issue. So that’s the best way to get a card for infrequent use.

So, basically, ORCA has been a giant letdown and I am not going to use it regularly anymore. It will be there for when I can’t find change, and that’s it. They need to rewrite these rules and give some kind of financial incentive (or at least equal financial incentive to paying cash) if they want the system to take off.

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