It's an ORCA New Year for Seattle-area transit riders, who are being urged to get the blue fare cards before other ways to pay turn obsolete.

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It’s an ORCA New Year for Seattle-area transit riders, who are being urged to get the blue fare cards before other ways to pay turn obsolete.

Within a couple of years, the ORCA — One Regional Card for All — cards will be used for most of the 500,000 transit trips made daily in the Puget Sound region.

Riders pay for their fare ahead of time by “loading” value onto the card. Before boarding, they tap the card at a yellow reader at Link or Sounder train stations, or at Swift bus-rapid transit stops on Highway 99 in Snohomish County. Gray card readers are mounted inside other buses.

You can set your ORCA card to work like a flat-rate monthly pass, based on which transit services you use; or you can pick the “E-Purse” option that is similar to a debit card, where you load $5 to $300 onto the card, and value is deducted each time you ride.

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Cards can be obtained at Sound Transit ticket machines, online at and from several retailers, notably Saar’s Market Place stores, Bartell Drug on Third Avenue in downtown Seattle, and Vashon Thriftway. ORCA cards will replace other passes distributed by workplace commuter programs, through 2010.

Voters approved a convenient “smart card” as part of the 1996 ballot measure that launched Sound Transit.

A single card is supposed to simplify travel by replacing some 300 varieties of passes, tickets and transfers. And there’s an advantage to governments, because ORCA software allocates each day’s fare income among the agencies.

King County and other partners signed a deal in 2003 with Australia-based ERG, which is being paid $68 million for design, delivery and the first 10 years of operation.

Holiday rush

On Christmas Eve morning in the Westlake Center transit station, an advertising sign depicted a red-ribbon-wrapped ORCA card as a stocking stuffer. A passer-by translated for two Mandarin-speaking women at a service window, who needed about 20 minutes to replace their old monthly passes with ORCA. A King County Metro supervisor later emerged from the back room to help people in line overcome various kinds of confusion.

On Tuesday, a line of 35 to 40 people formed at the King Street customer-service center to obtain ORCA cards, spokeswoman Linda Robson said. She encourages people obtaining the standard adult ORCA pass to get those from self-service Sound Transit ticket machines, or order them online.

Pam Shaley and Kari Olson of Ballard tried their smart cards for the first time, on a light-rail train to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, catching a flight to Minneapolis. For Shaley, the new card complements the just-opened airport station, where she will start her business trips instead of going by taxi. “It’s like $32 versus $2.50, so it’s going to be huge,” she said.

Toby Crittenden used ORCA while meeting his sister and brother-in-law at the airport.

“It’s so simple, so easy,” he said. “I just take it out of my pocket and tap it on the zapper thing. I no longer have to fumble around for loose change.” Pawing through his black coat, Crittenden produced tattered yellow and pink Metro fare tickets at least a year old. “This is what I was dealing with before … “

As of early December, roughly 250,000 ORCA cards were in circulation, and they are being used for more than 100,000 trips a day, Robson said.

Bumps in the transition

Not everything has gone smoothly.

• The vendor was three years late delivering the system.

• Customers need to wait five to seven business days between ordering a card online and receiving it in the mail.

• When a card is ordered online or by phone, it must be used within 30 days to activate the microchip inside, or it becomes dormant and the owner will have to call customer service. This happened to Shaley and Olson, but they said the customer-service hotline (888-988-6722) was helpful.

• People who obtain a subsidized ORCA card at work should know that employers are allowed to look at their travel records. One way to enhance privacy is to obtain a second card for personal use.

A little more than half of Metro fares are paid in cash, or subsidized fare tickets used by low-income passengers. ORCA is expected to cut that share to one-third.

During the recent race for King County executive, winner Dow Constantine said he’d like to go to an all-ORCA fare system someday. He is hesitating now — because of the social-equity problems that would occur if low-income riders became unable to use spare change for a bus ride. “We will move at the pace of society on this,” spokesman Frank Abe said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

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