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COVER STORY | RTD already faced a bumpy path before hitting a pandemic-sized pothole

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To say times are tough for transit is like saying it's lonely at the bus station these days.

Colorado, however, has a lot riding on how things shake out after the coronavirus pandemic and the economic devastation is tallied up. Gov. Jared Polis came into office promising to take on air pollution, and his views on transportation hinge on buses, trains and electrification.

The Denver metro area's Regional Transportation District still hopes to press ahead into a shiny tomorrow, once it survives the global pandemic. Yet the system already faced budget shortfalls and problems finding drivers months before anybody ever heard the term social distancing.

Leaders are putting the best face possible on a situation in a traffic-choked city that needs solid answers worthy of its projected 31% growth by 2050.

“It allows us to rethink how we deliver transit,” Michael Ford, RTD’s chief operating officer, said about the slowdown and chance to rebuild after. “... It’s really an eye toward the future: What have our practices been, what do we need to do to change and how do we continue to be relevant to our customers, not just today but going forward?”

More broadly, transit in Colorado has enjoyed a broad array of multi-modal successes, from its app-accessible 39,000 miles of trails to its critical rural shuttles. Each is taking a body blow by the statewide stay-at-home order that began March 25.

RTD's ridership has collapsed from 350,000 rides a day to about 125,000, a decline of two-thirds. Ridership has been trending downward for five years, though RTD still delivers roughly 106 million rides a year, usually for three bucks a lift, in a metro region of 3 million people, more than half the state's population.

The riders who are left, however, are mission critical, and no matter what the economy or epidemiology throw at us, that's not likely to change in order to deliver grocers, nurses, janitors, pharmacy clerks, government employees and other pandemic-critical personnel to their jobs.

RTD is giving away rides during the emergency, since the people relying on the service are essential workers, just like bus drivers and train operators.

The American Public Transportation Association says 60% of transit riders are people of color, and 78% are going to work or school. Yet, 60% have household incomes of less than $30,000 a year, and 21% earn less than $15,000 a year.

Nationally, experts say that while airlines will bounce back with bailouts, rail and bus systems might never fully recover. That prospect endangers transportation for millions of low-income commuters, while feeding traffic congestion failing climate goals — the opposite direction Colorado has been moving in for years since its political leanings turned leftward.

Angie Rivera-Malpiede is the executive director of the nonprofit Northeast Transportation Connections and chairs the RTD board. She spoke to a telephone town hall on April 16 and told listeners things are changing daily and sometimes several times a day.

Q&A with Angie Rivera-Malpiede | 'I grew up riding the bus'

“We don’t know when the lockdown will be lifted, and we don’t when the demand for our services will be back,” she said.

Backing down isn't an option, she told the listeners.

“RTD is providing a vital service and is a lifeline to many people in the community,” she said. “It’s crucial we continue operating for the public that relies on us.”

The hard reality

In many ways, it's just another bump in the road for an agency that's been dodging potholes for awhile.

The coronavirus creates an existential moment for mass transit, however. For mass transit to be what it is, you have to have a mass of people to move efficiently across a worthwhile distance. That's how you pay for the system.

Throughout North America, transit ridership demand across the industry was down 75%. A survey of more than 90 agencies found 45%, like RTD, had eliminated fares, “something that would have just been unimaginable four weeks ago,” said David Block-Schachter, chief business officer for Transit, a technology platform company.

RTD slashes service as ridership plummets

“We’re not an industry that’s used to the basic facts of the industry changing completely in a matter of days or weeks,” he said on an April 8 webinar with system operators across the U.S. and Canada.

A survey of transit agencies presented that day indicated 53% had gone to rear-door boarding to protect drivers and allow for a little social distancing. That might become the norm, local officials on the call said.

In the era of coronavirus, loads will have to be lighter. Social distancing isn’t going away anytime soon in metro Denver, Ford said. Buses are cleaned much more often with certified disinfectants aimed at viruses. Loitering in Union Station is limited to 10 minutes.

Beyond that, transportation planners across the state are looking at leaner operations and Uncle Sam, while hoping the economic storm passes soon.

Colorado is set to get nearly $285 million for urban transportation agencies from the federal relief package passed last month. Among the recipients, Denver and Aurora transportation is slated to receive more than $209 million.

RTD officials said that all together they hope to see up to $250 million in federal help in reimbursements for losses and expenses related to the health emergency, with the potential for more if there’s another bailout.

Colorado Springs will get $21.5 million from the stimulus, and Fort Collins is tabbed for $12.8 million.

Nationwide, the bailout for transit was more than $25 billion.

“This will keep the lights on for a while, but not if the crisis drags on,” transit planner and consultant Jarrett Walker wrote for CityLab on April 7.

For RTD existing problems were only exacerbated by the virus.

Last November, the RTD board had to fill in a nearly $40 million deficit in its 2020 budget, after bringing in $14.8 million less in anticipated fare collections and $25.2 million less in sales tax revenue last year.

“I think our services go beyond what we can afford easily, which is sad to me because we all want to give greater services,” board director Judy Lubow, a retired environmental lawyer, said at the time.

Then in December, RTD shut down six routes, reduced service on 19 bus routes and slowed the 16th Street Mall Shuttle from every 90 seconds to every three minutes, among efforts to deal with a dire labor shortage.

RTD was down about 60 rail operators and about 80 bus drivers, despite extensive recruitment measures. The agency was shelling out more than $1 million in overtime each month.

'People are afraid': Changing federal guidance affected RTD’s plan to protect operators

Starting April 19, RTD made cuts across its network of bus, rail and special services in response to its deep plunge in ridership, switching to its Saturday bus service levels and Sunday light rail service levels.

The B Line, which serves Denver and Westminster, changed to every hour instead of every 30 minutes. The G Line for Denver, Adams County, Arvada and Wheat Ridge runs every 30 minutes, as opposed to every 15.

Fewer workers mean fewer riders, and Colorado — a state that just weeks ago was at nearly full employment — is hemorrhaging workers now. 

More than 230,000 people across the state filed for first-time claims for unemployment insurance benefits in the four weeks ending April 11. The state numbers don't take into account self-employed or gig workers sidelined by the statewide stay-at-home order. Officials predict the worse may be yet ahead.

"There are more deaths ahead of us than behind us," Gov Jared Polis said on April 17.

The leaders at RTD remain bullish on its longer-term future, however.

"Over time, travel patterns in the metro area are going to revert back to something relatively similar to what they have been in recent years," predicted Bill Van Meter, RTD's assistant general manager over planning. "The environment is the same. People may not commute as much in the future. They may be working from home, if it works pretty well for them. The volumes may be lower and the demand may be changing, but there's still going to be offices and jobs that they'll need to travel to, and how we fit in is something we're continuously trying to work on."

The Polis dream

The troubles of metro transit are of special interest to Polis, even though they are not caused or easily remedied by state government.

For Polis to expand transit statewide, the RTD issue is too big to fail. When most Coloradans think about a mass transit, they don't think of ski shuttles in Aspen. They think of light rail and bus stops in Denver. 

The mission of mass transit has “too much importance to our community for us to let (RTD) wither and spiral down,” he told reporters in January.

Voters have been little help, either. Three times in two years ballot measures to steer more money into solving measures have gone down. That's left Polis to look for savings in state government and charge state transportation director Shoshana Lew with rethinking old ways of doing things to eventually pay for his transit dreams.

Those plans never got a chance to mature before the existing money train derailed.

Once state lawmakers return to the Capitol, tentatively May 18, they will have more immediate needs, including in transportation.

The state budget is looking at potentially $3 billion in budget cuts across every state agency. Revenue sources for every level of government feels the growing pain of recession, and potentially depression.

Lew gave what she called a "grim" report to the budget committee of the state Transportation Commission on April 16.

"What we're doing now is entering the start of a period where we have to think about potentially pretty brutal impacts for a few years," Lew said.

She added, overall, “There’s nothing we can do that’s a great outcome.”

In an interview with Colorado Politics two weeks earlier, she talked in terms of a pause on the aggressive plans she and Polis have been working on since he took office. There's no downside to planning, she said, to be ready for opportunities to return.

Until the state budget is back on its feet, however, it will be hard to move forward on any number of plans, big and small, that Polis and Democratic lawmakers hoped to pass courtesy of the state's formerly robust economy — such as continuing free all-day kindergarten, a publicly supported paid family leave program or public-private insurance option to pull down premiums with competition.

Colorado faced a $9 billion shortfall in the coming decade, the Hickenlooper administration said after years of funding struggles at the Capitol before handing the issue plagued by neglect and political failure over to Polis.

Yet, in 2017 lawmakers passed Senate Bill 267 to raise nearly $2 billion for transportation, with at least 10% dedicated to transit. That measure, however, could get tied up in the coronavirus relief. The proceeds come from the state selling certificates of participation to investors, who would collect lease money for state buildings.

The second batch of certificates are yet to be released, and now that the state budget has imploded, it remains to be seen how lawmakers fill budget holes for transportation, transit or otherwise.

Just last month, Lew presented a 10-year transportation plan built on the idea that the state legislature, state voters and the state's robust economy would deliver an extra $500 million a year above the Department of Transportation's historic baseline budget.

That might be on hold awhile for a governor who once talked about a commuter rail connecting the Front Range.

Republican Sen. Ray Scott of Grand Junction was appointed alongside Democratic Sen. Faith Winter of Westminster to a recovery task force on transportation. Scott has been one of the most dogged advocates for road building.

“I wouldn’t say it’s dead, but you’ve got what you’ve got for now,” he said of mass transit. “I don’t know what the future looks like, but at $32 million a mile and probably a ridership, because of social distancing, that will be minuscule going into whatever the time frame is. You’ve got what you’ve got.

“That’s what I’d tell somebody who’s all about transit: Love it for now. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to spend that kind of money, when we have the budget deficit we’re facing. We’re going to be scrambling for every dollar we get for current transportation projects.”

Reimagine RTD

Facing an enormous economic setback with potentially long-term effects on demand, RTD is still looking at a future that's verdant and optimistic, no matter how long it takes to get there.

The agency is in the middle of its two-year Reimagine RTD effort to look into the future and meet the needs of a dynamic population.

Now that the brand of mass transit everywhere is taking a hit, they'll have to imagine what to do about that, too.

Ford said the system continues to work with consultants, technical groups and community groups on the way forward, without getting lost in what transit does best: move people efficiently.

“With all the new technology, we want to chase all the shiny lights, but how do we connect to our service, how do we continue to be relevant, what things do we need to do, what other partners do we need to work with, so that we can have a seamless system that meets a lot of the mobility needs now and into the future? I think that’s one of the challenges we’re facing.

“We can’t be all things to all people, but how do we connect people from point A to point B when you leave your house in the morning?" Ford asked. "You have choices.”

Van Meter, RTD's chief planner, hopes to have the Reimagine plan completed by the end of the year, so it can be put in motion by the middle of 2021.

The plan will look at fixed route buses, rail and flex ride services through four lenses: social equity, geographic coverage, quality and cost efficiency.

“We’re staying the course on that, because regardless of our budget constraints or opportunities, that’s the core of what our mission still remains,” Van Meter told Colorado Politics. “It is moving people effectively and in a way (that has) good quality and all with the balance of those four themes.”

The agency is looking at new ways of doing things to be more relevant to the public.

Drivers began delivering groceries for its Access-a-Ride customers who call or go online to book an order starting on March 30.

Last year RTD created a first-and-last-mile plan to see how it could better connect homes to transit, rather than people to transit stations.

“We know where our strengths are,” he said. “Our strengths are in traditional public transit. They’re in flex rides and the really innovative stuff we’re doing there.”

RTD asks passengers to wear masks as operator face coverings arrive

RTD also is working on public-private partnerships with ride-lift drivers and scooter rentals to incorporate public transit into a broader transportation landscape. Technology allows transit to be a clearing house for getting people from Point A to Point B across the metro area, the RTD officials said in a virtual sit-down with Colorado Politics.

“We’re not there yet,” Van Meter said. “But that one-stop shop will help people find out how to find a scooter or an Uber or a Lyft. What’s the best route? How do I pay for all this, to get to and from transit and to and from a destination?"

Courting conflict

Voters have allowed RTD to invest in decades of development using billions in tax dollars to build out a system that's never ceased to yield second-guessing and problems, long before the pandemic. 

Critics say the model has outlived the needs of modern society and continues to drain resources that could backfill the shortfall in budgeting for growth. "Empty light rail cars in Denver" is a political contrivance used to help defeat proposed tax hikes across the state for years, partly because when voters passed Referendum C in 2005 to pause some tax rebates under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, the promised solutions on Interstate 25 were quickly bogged down in bureaucracy, and some are still in process.

The thrust of Referendum C was to bail out the state budget and address underfunded public education as well.

With change coming to a vital service, more political questions await at the next stop.

"This is the opportune time for RTD to re-tool and bring its mission back to what it was when it was created — providing mobility to those who have none, namely the transit dependent," agreed Jon Caldara, a former board member, Colorado Politics columnist and head of the libertarian-minded Independent Institute in Denver.

Needs and political realities, however, aren't always operating on the same plane. Caldara thinks RTD should meet the existing needs, rather than try, and usually fail, to create new ways of being relevant.

"They do this by becoming fully transit-dependent focused, not the crony-based social engineers they have become," he wrote in an email. "If the mission is to serve the area’s mobility have-nots then the answer becomes very clear. RTD would take their massive, massive, MASSIVE tax take and give the funding directly to transit dependents to spend on the mobility choice that best serves their own personal situation. That might be a taxi ride, Uber, shared ride, bus (at full fare), or Heaven forbid they buy their own used car!"

He said state and municipal leaders should build infrastructure that encourages ride-sharing, "like the Denver-Boulder highway does so well, helping everyone play the transit game, not just a one-player, government-owned, Soviet-styled monopoly like RTD’s rail system."

He doubts "anti-growth social engineers on the left and the business cronies" will follow a market-driven direction.

"The Denver area will continue to spend most of its transportation money on old school rails and buses, and our roads will continue to be choked," Caldara predicted. "And the people without money will continue to get f--ked and be enslaved to RTD, as bond dealers stay happy and enviros continue to manipulate."

Scott Wasserman, director of the left-leaning Bell Policy Center economic think tank in Denver, says policymakers have to think about future needs and demands, not old ways of doing things that have led to congestion and air quality problems for metro Denver.

“Of course transit still matters!" he said when asked via text. "Not only has the pandemic reminded us of what a clear skyline looks like, but its hammered home just how essential every person’s mobility is to this economy.  

"We need a well funded, well run transportation system that features all of the options people want and need to get around. If we follow the science, there’s no reason our trains, buses, and bike lanes can’t adapt and be safe.”

Former Democratic state Rep. Paul Rosenthal is seeking a seat on the RTD board. 

He said RTD has to change with the environment around it in a service area sprawled across cities, suburbs and rural areas.

He said the legislature and governor need to be partners not adversaries, to begin with, so RTD can get some restrictions lifted and build greater credibility with taxpayers to fund future requests.

Rosenthal sees more than aspirational goals, however.

"In order to survive, RTD will need to aggressively implement changes made available through new technologies," he said. "That includes greater integration with low-cost ride-share services so that there is more flexibility with routes to augment fixed-route buses and trains. Also, RTD will need to further improve the communication systems that provide riders with real-time information about their options.

"Additionally, there need to be more frequent, smaller, faster, and disability-accessible buses, especially during peak periods and reduce the number of empty buses. Ultimately, the entire bus fleet needs to be electric in order to adapt to climate change, save on fossil fuels and reduce maintenance costs."

Changing industry

Ann Rajewski, executive director of the Colorado Association of Transit Agencies, said transit is much more than urban hubs such as RTD. It's aviation, rail, highway, biking and pedestrian systems that give Coloradans access and options to get around, beyond their own car or truck.

The pandemic shines a light on who needs transit, she said.

“If you look at people riding the bus right now, it’s the basis of what public transit does: It provides transportation to folks who are transit-dependent, the folks who don’t don’t have other avenues, people who work at the grocery stores stocking the shelves, who are working at the take-out restaurants,” Rajewski said. “That’s a really strong base.”

Transportation, she acknowledged, faced big problems before the pandemic.

RTD changes course with rear-door boarding, fare suspension on bus and light rail

“It’s a tricky business," Rajewski said. "I think, as we move forward, it’s going to be challenging, because when we start talking about not being able to carry as many people on a bus and it’s just not safe to do it that way."

Only one thing is perfectly clear: People have to get back together, she said.

“The challenging part of social distancing is that it’s opposed to getting a whole lot of people crowded onto a bus or rail line to make it really efficient,” Rajewski said. “I think it could really look different in the future, but I don’t think anyone can say how it’s all going to shake out.

"What it looks like in between, we’ll all have to stay tuned."

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