RTD-04172020-KS-109

DENVER, CO - APRIL 17: The eastbound RTD University of Colorado A Line train pulls away from the Central Park Station on Smith Road on April 17, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

The Regional Transportation District's financial troubles are prompting action from the state Capitol, with the Wednesday announcement of an advisory committee that will take a deep dive on the transit agency's woes.

Gov. Jared Polis, joined by the Democratic chairs of the House and Senate transportation committees and RTD Chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede, said he's setting up an RTD review committee.

The committee will look at the agency's financials, the structure of RTD governance, short- and long-term prioritization of resources and how to address gaps in coverage, particularly for riders with disabilities.

On Tuesday, CPR reported the RTD board was told its service was cut 40% in April and that the agency anticipates a shortfall of $252 million next year, about one-third of its overall budget. By 2026, that shortfall could grow to $1.3 billion.

“We'll be hard-pressed to maintain the current level of service, which is the COVID service plan, at a 40 percent reduction from January,” Bruce Abel, RTD's special projects director, told the board at a meeting Tuesday evening, according to CPR.

Lawmakers attempted to take on some of RTD's problems during the abbreviated 2020 session. That bill, Senate Bill 151, was postponed indefinitely on May 26, due to both its cost and to the complexity of the issue, coming at a time when lawmakers were attempting to pass a state budget and deal with legislation tied to the pandemic. 

One of the bill's major provisions looks a lot like what happened today: creation of a blue-ribbon panel, to be overseen by the Department of Transportation, that would perform "an in-depth review of RTD."

But one issue was on both Polis' mind and that of Rep. Matt Gray of Broomfield, who chairs the House Transportation Committee. That's the long-delayed light-rail service to Boulder and Longmont. 

RTD obtained voter approval for funding that line in 2004. The 41-mile line was to be completed by 2017, but the RTD board has now pushed that date back to 2050, nearly 33 years late.

"This isn't just for folks in my neighborhood or the governor's," Gray told reporters Wednesday. "This is about more effective governance."

Polis added that RTD needs to rebuild trust with taxpayers, who have been paying for that service since 2004, "and that service isn't on the horizon...the train has to come," Polis said. "RTD is required to deliver it" based on the binding vote of taxpayers. "I'm disappointed" that it's decades behind schedule, he said.

"We are not asking RTD to do the impossible," Gray said. "It's to say with the resources we have, are we being as efficient and effective as possible, especially for those who are particularly reliant" on the service.

Rivera-Malpiede said the RTD board has been looking very carefully at the budget. "It's daunting to know" that economic forecasts predict the agency will be short more than a billion in sales tax revenue. But she also said she knows the agency "has a trust problem." 

Sen. Faith Winter of Westminster, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said it is not their intention to force RTD's hands and committed to a transparent process. The advisory group will seek public input and make public their recommendations, she said. "Public pressure does mean something."

According to a statement issued after the news conference, the RTD Accountability Committee has been in the works since last year. 

The committee will review:

  • Recent financials from the district, including any recent audits and a thorough review of the agency’s use of CARES Act stimulus funds;
  • The structure of RTD governance and executive leadership;
  • A review of the district’s short-term and long-term prioritization of resources to maximize the district’s limited dollars for the benefit of taxpayers;
  • How RTD can better serve all riders including those with disabilities,
  • How it can better serve transit-dependent populations
  • A review of the district’s plans for how to expand ridership
  • How the district is addressing coverage gaps, prioritizing route planning, and is serving its entire service area;
  • A determination of the long-range financial stability of the agency, and how the agency can achieve stability and growth while still meeting its core mission.

The members of this committee, yet to be announced, will have expertise in "local government, economic development, human resources, multi-modal transportation, transportation equity, issues impacting riders with disabilities, financial planning and management and urban planning."

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