Few public services have been waylaid by COVID-19 like mass transit. Bus and light-rail systems across the country, by and large publicly funded, have been dealt a triple-whammy in 2020. Revenue plummeted when state and local tax collections took a nosedive during the lockdown. Ridership dropped dramatically as vast swaths of the labor force began working from home. Public apprehension about sharing a bus bench amid a pandemic has pushed ridership even lower.

That has set off a vicious cycle. Reduced ridership has meant lower revenue from fares. Transit systems had to cut service significantly given the enormous cost of running largely empty trains and buses. That has cut even deeper into fare revenue — and the canceled routes probably reoriented a lot of regular riders to alternative transportation. In some cases, permanently.

That's the unhappy place where metro Denver's Regional Transportation District finds itself. That grim reality must have left new chief exec Debra Johnson — now in her first week on the job helming the eight-county transit behemoth — feeling as if she'd just missed the last train at the station.

 

RTD's 15-member elected board approved a budget for 2021 on Tuesday that includes layoffs and cuts. The $1.2 billion budget anticipates some 400 layoffs; cuts to pay and benefits, and continued cutbacks in train and bus routes.

RTD leadership is saying it could have been worse. Sales tax revenue to the district is doing better than expected as COVID lingers, so the budget wound up being "only" $140 million or so lower than what originally was projected.

The bottom line, though, is full restoration of service — currently at about 60 percent of normal — isn't yet in sight. And the fiscal straits are raising questions anew about RTD's ability to move ahead with expansion of light-rail lines like the B Line to Boulder.

Of course, organized labor isn't any happier than is RTD management about the layoffs and cuts to pay and benefits.  As reported in Tuesday's Gazette, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001, the largest union representing RTD rank and file, staunchly opposed layoffs even as it acknowledged there's little it could do about it.

“We will NEVER agree to layoffs,” the local said in an Oct. 30 announcement. “RTD has the right to pursue layoffs, but we will never agree.”

The union, incidentally, also predicted a federal windfall is coming RTD's way. The union noted that the HEROES Act, passed by the Democratic-controlled U.S. House on Oct. 1, would provide $32 billion in transit funding — and would have smoother sailing under the incoming Biden administration and a Democratic Senate.

 

That sounds a bit fanciful; Senate control has yet to be decided by runoff elections in Georgia in January. Which reaffirms the labor movement's partisan loyalties if not its ability to read the tea leaves.

We don't wish layoffs on anyone, whether on RTD's payroll or elsewhere. So many breadwinners have lost jobs in our whipsawed state economy, and their households are suffering. 

Yet, absent a windfall magnitudes larger than what's promised in the HEROES Act, RTD has no choice but to roll with the punches. For the sake of the riders who rely on it and the taxpayers who subsidize it, RTD has to make do — and more.

As a first step, changes to payroll are inevitable and necessary. RTD exists, after all, not to employ people, but to transport them.

Yet, this also is an opportunity for RTD to reassess its operating model in more far-reaching ways. RTD's board should be asking itself a lot of tough questions right now. Some of it is fodder for logistics analysts: Is its bus fleet right-sized? Does it need a more nimble assortment that includes minibuses? Is there a different way to schedule or configure light rail?

Other questions are more fundamental. Can more of RTD's operations be contracted out to less expensive providers — as is already the case with some of the bus fleet? To be sure, the unions won't like it, but RTD has a lot more pressing priorities at this point than keeping organized labor happy. 

How about getting entrepreneurial, perhaps renting or leasing out some district-owned space — or vehicles and rolling stock — to private vendors of goods and services? Maybe even as venues for novelty events — once the long dark night of the pandemic finally has passed?

Creative thinking is needed in these most unconventional times, and there's no one in a better position to brainstorm than RTD's board members. They weren't elected merely to rubber-stamp budgets in good times and wring their hands in bad times. They are at the wheel of the largest public transit system in the Rocky Mountain West. And right about now, it could use some reinvention.

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