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July 31, 2013 at 4:03 PM

ORCA milestone: 10K passholders in small-business program

Commute Seattle said Wednesday that it has sold 10,000 transit passes under the ORCA Passport program, to small businesses employing from five to 99 people.

Passport allows companies to buy fare cards as an employee benefit at below-retail prices. But the companies must buy a pass for every full-time worker, thus creating new transit users, and guaranteed income for transit agencies. Companies in turn must pay at least half the pass cost, so that for instance, a worker might spend $250 out of pocket for a year’s fare worth roughly $1,200 retail.

Wednesday’s announcement was at Genelex in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, where employee Alex Nelson was handed a giant blue card, a backpack and an e-tablet for becoming the 10,000th passholder.

“It really helps to deliver happy, healthy, stress-free employees to Genelex who can come to work and focus on genetic testing, rather than come in and talk about how they were stuck in traffic,” said Bob Nebel, Genelex finance director.

Selling 10,000 of the Passport-type passes is a big accomplishment, since the average enrolled company buys 25 passes, said Jessica Szelag, program manager for Commute Seattle, a nonprofit funded by governments and businesses. For passes arranged through Commute Seattle, the average daily use rate is 50 percent, said Victor Obeso, service development director for King County Metro Transit.

Overall, approximately 250,000 ORCA passes have been distributed regionally through workplaces, when big institutions such as Microsoft, the University of Washington and government itself are counted.  An estimated 43 percent of employees in Central Seattle take transit to work, while others bike, walk, telework or carpool, and fewer than 35 percent drive alone.

In some ways, the programs look regressive: The professional class and people fortunate enough to work for certain companies enjoy the biggest subsidies, while the working poor or people unaffiliated with participating firms pay more for their transit.  In the larger picture, Metro subsidizes more than 70 percent of operating costs through sales tax everybody pays, while the average rider’s household income is higher than the King County average, as this county ordinance mentions.

Szelag replied that ORCA programs benefit a wide spectrum of employees and neighborhoods, and discounted passes can be arranged for even the smallest firms. And the highest participation rates, near 80 percent, are for workers in and around the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, said Obeso. “Getting people into downtown, reducing congestion, and reducing carbon, are a handful of reasons alone to do this,” Obeso added.

In other ORCA news, Obeso said Metro is on track to install on-street ORCA readers and One Bus Away arrival listings at nine transit stops on and near Third Avenue by February — when the RapidRide E Line will replace Route 358 in the Aurora-downtown corridor, serving more than 11,000 daily passengers. On-street ORCA will enable riders on the West Seattle C Line, the Ballard D Line, and the E Line to pay fare on-street, then board through all three doors. Doing so might reduce bus waiting times 30 to 60 seconds at the busiest afternoon stops.



Comments | More in Government, Traffic & Transit | Topics: King County Metro, ORCA Passport


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