Public Transportation Bus Driving Downtown Denver Colorado

An RTD bus in Denver.

The Regional Transportation District is experiencing a major hit in ridership due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

RTD staff estimates its ridership has plummeted by about 60%, the agency stated in a Wednesday news release, although data is "based upon informal counts by staff across the transit system."

Ridership is tracked by month, not by week, spokeswoman Laurie Huff said, and the agency is still working through a methodology to provide ridership estimates for shorter time periods.

Nevertheless, she said, the trend is clear: “We have seen a drop in ridership."

Last year, RTD provided about 347,800 weekday trips compared with about 139,000 weekday trips this year.

The agency was "ironically ... thrust into the dilemma of adjusting to lower service levels over the past several months due to our operator shortage," she added, "so what we’re experiencing due to this pandemic is an extension of that fact.”

However, RTD has not had staffing issues during the outbreak and is experiencing “normal attendance” to date, although she said a “small uptick” in sick callouts have been occurring among light rail operators.

Paul Ballard, RTD’s interim CEO and general manager, recently told CPR that if enough bus drivers and light rail operators called in sick, the agency would be forced to make service cuts.

“It’s certainly not ideal,” he said. “But in an emergency situation, if we get to this level, it's the most responsible thing that we can do.”

Shontel Lewis, an RTD director, submitted on Wednesday a letter to the agency's board of directors to call for the "immediate suspension" of six-day mandates for the agency's transit operators amid the pandemic. 

"As we see numbers of those infected continue to increase exponentially, we need to prioritize the safety and well-being of our operators," Lewis wrote. "We do not need automatic passenger count data to deduce that ridership is through the floor. 

"Let's stop subjecting our operators to these terrible working conditions when there are no riders to provide service to," she continued. "During a time of uncertainty, this is a time that we demonstrate care for our people — our operators."

RTD cleaning crews are continuing to clean the agency’s fleet of buses and trains every day, prioritizing wiping down surfaces, hand railings, hand grips and common areas.

“While people may see some trash on the floor of their bus or train, that doesn’t mean that vehicle isn’t being disinfected every day,” Huff said. “Our cleaning crews are doing their best to do an overall cleaning, but as directed, they are making wiping down surfaces with disinfectant their priority.”

Still, Huff said, navigating the crisis hasn’t been easy.

“RTD, like everyone else, has been challenged with getting supplies such as sanitizing wipes and hand gels,” she said. “More orders are arriving in the next few days.”

Beginning next week, RTD will also be making changes to its board meetings.

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RTD’s board of directors will meet remotely, beginning March 24, “in the interest of public health, safety and welfare,” the agency stated in a Tuesday news release.

Overall, Huff said, the agency continues to evaluate its service needs as the contagious illness evolves.

“We are committed to providing service to our customers, many of whom are transit dependent,” she said. “It is also important to continue providing service for those who must get to work at hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities.”

Nationally, transit agencies are reporting a drop in ridership ranging from 45 to 80%, according to RTD. 

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