Within a few years, passengers might be able to use the regional ORCA transit-fare card to buy a ride on the Seattle Center Monorail.
Members of the Seattle City Council said Tuesday they want to integrate the Monorail fare payment with other public transportation in the Puget Sound area, as a condition of signing a new 10-year agreement this month with private Seattle Monorail Services.
The move could attract thousands of new customers to the milelong train line, filling the seats with commuters during times when few tourists are around.
But those trips wouldn’t earn much revenue, if people can transfer from a bus or Sound Transit light rail for free or a tiny surcharge.
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Managers of the 52-year-old Monorail take pride in making an operating profit. They charge a $2.25 adult fare per one-way trip, collecting cash only. Wages and other operating costs are far lower than at local public-transit agencies.
City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen will propose a requirement that the Monorail develop a plan by April to begin taking ORCA payments in the near future, he said.
“We’re authorizing a 10-year agreement,” Rasmussen said before a committee vote recommending the council approve the new contract. “That’s a long time. We need to have certainty that this will be integrated into the ORCA system.”
Councilmembers Jean Godden and Mike O’Brien expressed support for the move, while Seattle Center Director Robert Nellams sounded a note of caution.
Seattle Center and Seattle Monorail Services are open to studying ORCA integration, Nellams said. They plan to move the Monorail to electronic fare collection with or without ORCA, he said.
But integration won’t be simple, Nellams said.
“We want an opportunity to study that and assess what the impacts are,” he said.
The City Council’s discussion Tuesday didn’t resolve the crucial question of what to charge people who continue onto the monorail right after using other transit.
Passengers who tap ORCA cards can move between Sound Transit, King County Metro and Community Transit vehicles for little or no surcharge — though Washington State Ferries provides its ORCA users no such transfer credit.
The city-owned Monorail receives no operating subsidies, and would even pay the city $550,000 a year in net revenues, a summary of the 10-year agreement says.
But the Monorail is routinely given capital money, including $1 million from the Federal Transit Administration for maintenance this year.
After a 2004 fire and a 2005 collision, a $4.5 million overhaul of the aging red and blue trains was financed by the city, which planned to recover the money through federal grants. Seattle Monorail Services privately funded another $3 million in direct costs to repair fire damage, which was partly reimbursed by insurors.
The Monorail carries about 2 million passengers a year between Seattle Center and Westlake Center. That’s more than double the load of the city’s South Lake Union streetcar.
Godden said members of the public contacted the council in the 24 hours before Tuesday’s meeting of the Parks, Seattle Center, Libraries and Gender Pay Equity Committee, to advocate for ORCA integration. Transit supporters for years have sought to weave the Monorail into the regional system, and the case for integration has only gained steam.
Since 2009, riders have been able to walk downstairs from the Monorail’s Westlake stop and catch Sound Transit light rail to Tukwila or Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Another link, a First Avenue streetcar to Pioneer Square, is proposed to reach McGraw Square plaza, one block from the Monorail.