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ORCA Puts Ferries, Buses and Trains on One Ticket

The system's NFC RFID card can be used for transportation in four Seattle-area counties.
By Claire Swedberg
Oct 22, 2009A consortium of seven transit agencies, including Sound Transit—the Puget Sound's regional transit authority, in the Seattle, Wash., area—are launching a system for transit users to access ferries, buses and trains by tapping a single RFID ORCA card. ORCA (the name is an acronym derived from the phrase "One Regional Card for All") features a card containing a 13.56 MHz passive RFID tag that complies with Near Field Communication (NFC) specifications, enables passengers to load funds onto an account, from which they can then draw every time they ride a bus, train or ferry in Seattle, or in neighboring counties.

The system, including hardware, was provided by Vix ERG, an Australian provider of automated-fare-collection systems, and helps to solve the problem of a very diverse transit population that often uses multiple forms of transit on a single day. Many travelers arrive or leave the Seattle area by ferry, then subsequently ride buses or trains. Each transit agency has its own fare system, and paying for each ride often required multiple tickets or transit passes, or else they had to be managed with cash.

An ORCA card reader deployed at a train station
The solution, according to Brian Brooke, Sound Transit's manager for research, policy and business development, is a contactless payment system that stores all transit payment data on a single server, and allows passengers to pay for multiple rides with one card. Initially, Brooke says, King County Metro, the Seattle area's transit agency, had been exploring this technology to manage fare payments within the county, and it piloted a contactless system in the 1990s. Sound Transit was then formed, which included multiple transit agencies. The agency began researching a system that would make it possible for passengers to pay all of their fares on one regional transit pass.

"We have a lot of folks who live in one county and work in another," Brooke explains, "and they use multiple transit service providers." The coverage area encompasses King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties, and includes the cities of Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, Everett and Bremerton, with 439 bus routes, 12 ferry routes, 73 miles of commuter rail and 17 miles of light rail. On an average weekday, he says, approximately 500,000 rides are recorded in the area, which serves a population of about 3.6 million. In that four-county area, there are roughly 300 different forms of tickets in use.

In 2006, the consortium completed a beta test of the NFC system, then introduced the system to a limited number of users earlier this year, before introducing it to the general public this fall. To date, approximately 150,000 riders are using the cards, but the group expects that number to rise, says Cheryl Huston, ORCA's regional administrator, as more riders complete the use of their existing bus or ferry passes.

Each rider can now be issued an ORCA card at an agency office, or by mail. The user can sign up for auto-loading, which deducts a specified amount from that person's bank account when his or her ORCA balance drops to a certain level. The card carries an NFC RFID chip with 4 kilobits of memory encoded with a unique ID number, as well as the amount of money stored for fare payments, explains John Winyard, Vix ERG's VP. Funds can be loaded onto the card at a vending machine, or at an agency office. The RFID tag does not store personal information, such as a user's name or account number.

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