Elderly, disabled struggle to get ORCA transit card
Since December, thousands of disabled and elderly people have had to find their way to a King County Metro customer-service counter in downtown Seattle and wait in long lines to obtain their discounted ORCA cards.
Seattle Times transportation reporter
Making the move to an ORCA cardSome information to help transit riders in King County avoid long lines or hassle:
Disabled riders: In King County, disabled customers who convert their reduced-fare permits to ORCA must appear in person at Metro headquarters, 201 S. Jackson St., Seattle, to be photographed for the new ORCA system.
Senior riders: Seniors can exchange their old passes for white ORCA cards either at Westlake Station or at Jackson Street.
Service hours: Jackson Street service center, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays; Westlake Station center, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays — and temporary Saturday service is being added at both, from Jan. 31 to Feb. 27. Both are closed Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Hotline: A new line to help disabled and senior customers convert their existing passes to ORCA passes: 206-205-9185.
Adult riders: People buying standard adult passes are usually better off obtaining ORCA cards through a ticket vending machine, or online at orcacard.com, instead of at a service center.
$5 fee: A $5 fee to obtain an ORCA card, for adult riders, will take effect March 1 — a month extension from the earlier Feb. 1 deadline. The fee applies only to new passes — not people who replace existing passes with ORCA. Senior and disabled passes still require a $3 startup fee for first-time applicants, separate from the ORCA program.
No pass rush: The annual Metro or regional pass you carry is honored for full transfer credit until its expiration date. The new transfer rules that started Jan. 1 prevented people from using paper Metro transfers on Sound Transit lines, but plastic passes are OK.
For most people, the switch to an ORCA transit card is simple. They either apply online, get a subsidized card at work or tap the screen at a ticket-vending machine at any Sound Transit rail station.
But far more effort is demanded from people who are elderly or disabled.
Since December, thousands have had to find their way to a King County Metro customer-service counter in downtown Seattle. Earlier this month, they waited in lines up to an hour or more to prove to the next available customer-service representative that they qualified for a discounted fare pass.
"It's completely unacceptable that people had to wait that long," King County Executive Dow Constantine said this week. He and Metro manager Kevin Desmond said they will improve customer service, including a boost in personnel at customer centers.
Also, transit agencies on Friday agreed to delay from Feb. 1 until March 1 the planned $5 fee for new adult ORCA cards.
There are only two places in King County where seniors can go for discounted fare passes — the Metro customer-service stop in Westlake Station and Metro headquarters in Pioneer Square.
The disabled must report to Metro headquarters. That's because disabled passes require photographs and other computer equipment that's only available there.
The two sites also serve the general public, including many young, non-English speaking, and other customers, so lines can be long and move slowly.
ORCA (One Regional Card for All) was launched last year after six years of development and testing. The single "smart card" now is used on buses, trains, streetcars and ferries in four counties, replacing some 300 kinds of passes and transfers.
The smart card is meant to simplify travel. But the changeover has been a hassle for thousands of people.
"I guess it's a minor nuisance, in the scheme of things" said Howard Johnson, 71, who bused from Bellevue last week to wait in line at Westlake Station, where it took an hour to swap his old senior card for a new ORCA senior card.
People are willing to make the effort for the savings that come with a senior or disabled permit — for instance, a senior or disabled monthly pass is $18 per month for travel on Metro Transit in both Seattle and the suburbs, compared with $99 for a similar adult pass.
ORCA is gradually replacing all other passes as they expire this year. People who are using an annual pass issued in 2009 need not switch to ORCA until their old pass expires.
Earlier this month, a few seniors waited up to 90 minutes. A one-hour wait was typical last week, but times improved this week, to 30 to 45 minutes Thursday and only a few minutes Friday — although Desmond called this a mid-month lull, and expects another surge.
"I hated seeing the lines," he said. "It's not what we wanted to put our customers through."
After the first December wave, Metro supervisors began walking up to people in the lines, taking questions. Often, they escorted an adult to the nearby ticket machines, for a quick transaction.
But at Westlake Station, only two and sometimes just one of the three windows is manned. Metro cites high costs. Desmond said he plans to staff all windows at Westlake, once new people are trained Jan. 25, and absorb the overtime cost later.
Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick emphasized that this winter's inconvenience is a one-time situation. Once people get ORCA cards, they won't need to renew them every year at a service window.
Part of the problem is that many adults are yet unaware they can get ORCA online or through ticket machines — without a wait.
Winter's rush happened partly because of ORCA publicity and news coverage about the big changeover for 2010. Many riders worried about getting hit with a $5 card fee on Feb. 1, or that their current passes would become invalid, though transit officials clarified this week that the situation is actually less severe. More people have been obtaining cards in person than online.
There are no suburban outlets in King County, not even an ORCAmobile to barnstorm the county. Transit staffers did visit senior centers in 2009 — an effort that is going to be increased in the next few weeks, to both educate people and take card sign-ups, Desmond said.
Two middle-aged women, Marci Carpenter and Kay Burrows, finished their pancake breakfast and caught a bus downtown, to convert their transit passes to the new ORCA smart-card.
They sought disabled reduced-fare cards because both are blind. They took their place at the rear of the line in Westlake Station.
A few minutes later, a Metro employee showed up, explaining they had to go to 201 S. Jackson St., the only place where Metro keeps photographic and computer equipment to collect mug shots for passes for disabled people.
The women descended into the tunnel and caught a bus to the International District/Chinatown station. Tapping their white canes, they found the escalator to street level, became separated crossing Fourth Avenue South, but reunited to reach Metro headquarters, behind 40 people in line.
"It's better than it's been," a transit supervisor said.
Carpenter's back is damaged because of a car crash, and Burrows has a hip disorder, so they both sat on a padded bench. After an hour, the supervisor called them forward at what was their turn in line.
Carpenter waved her new ORCA card in front of her face.
"Free at last!" she said. "Free at last."
The crush of card applications is far greater than Metro anticipated.
The agency processed almost 4,000 reduced-fare passes in December, more than triple the normal volume. It takes about 20 minutes per customer to answer questions, take pictures and register someone for disabled passes, Desmond said.
Desmond is both pleased and caught off-guard at what he called the public's very fast adoption of smart-card technology. About 154,000 average daily rides — almost one-third of the three-county total — are being made using ORCA this month.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or email@example.com
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