Public Transportation Bus Driving Downtown Denver Colorado (copy)

An RTD bus in Denver.

The Regional Transportation District’s board of directors on Tuesday approved a six-month stretch of reduced service in light of a 70% drop in ridership in recent weeks due to the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Interim general manager Paul Ballard described the last 10 days as having “a steady and dramatic decrease in ridership that is unrivaled in public transportation history,” with systemwide ridership now at 100,000 per day “and dropping.” Earlier in March, there were an average of 347,000 daily riders.

Board members approved the institution of Saturday levels of service for bus routes and Sunday levels of service for light rail, effective on April 19. The reduction will last until Sept. 20, although RTD may restore service early if conditions allow. The agency said that it will keep its workforce intact, with operations employees on standby or filling in for sick operators. The commuter lines to Denver International Airport and the northern suburbs are separate from RTD’s operations, and Denver Transit Partners has not yet indicated that it will cut service on those routes.

On Monday, RTD announced that Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s issuance of a shelter-at-home order would not lead to service reductions. Pauletta Tonilas, RTD’s assistant general manager, said that while it is true that Hancock’s directive did not in itself lead to the cuts, the changes approved on Tuesday were based on a nearly two-week trend.

“The move towards a COVID-related reduction came yesterday after much discussion, thus the scheduling of a special board meeting tonight to take quick action," she said on Tuesday night. “Decisions around the globe are happening on a day-by-day basis, and we continue to evaluate and adjust as necessary.”

The service cuts coincide with the previously-scheduled changes resulting from an operator shortage. RTD experienced canceled runs for light rail and bus routes, and mandated overtime for nearly 70% of bus operators and 42% of light rail operators. That directive took a toll on the workforce. “We’re providing 99% of bus service and 96% of rail service, but at the expense of our employees,” the agency admitted in February.

The COVID-19 reductions go beyond the planned changes. Until September, service will run from 5 a.m. to midnight. RTD will give gloves, hand sanitizer and wipes or spray to operators, depending on availability. 

“We have not issued masks to operators at this time as the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has not recommended that operators wear masks except in certain specific circumstances,” Ballard informed the board. There is a severe shortage of N95 respirators worldwide, which has induced people to create homemade masks for medical professionals.

“Surgical masks will be available by next month, but there is absolutely no scientific proof or CDC recommendation that the surgical mask will protect people from the COVID-19 virus,” Ballard added. The CDC has, in fact, said that healthcare professionals should wear such masks, but that social distancing outside of hospital settings should be sufficient.

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