JoyAnn Ruscha was sworn in on Jan. 10 as a member of the Regional Transportation District's 15-member board of directors as the newly elected representative of District B, which covers Northeast Denver, including Park Hill, Central Park, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, Denver International Airport and parts of Aurora and unincorporated Adams County.
Ruscha lost a bid for the seat four years ago but had the ballot to herself in November and won election as the only certified write-in candidate, after the incumbent decided against seeking another four-year term.
In her day job, Ruscha is director of government relations and grants at ARC Thrift Stores and volunteers with the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition to advocate for policies that advance residents with disabilities.
A veteran political communications and public policy strategist, Ruscha has been an advisor to Democrats Phil Weiser, Julie Gonzales, Robert Rodriguez, Eva Henry and Mike Merrifield, and worked for the Denver auditor's office and the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters. During a stint as a lobbyist at the State Capitol, she worked on a sweeping public transit bill for the 2020 session with Rodriguez, state Rep. Dominique Jackson and former legislators Jack Tate and Colin Larson. While that bill didn't make it to the governor's desk, elements of it have been included in subsequently signed laws.
Ruscha and her son Judah, a senior at Northfield High School, live with their rescue dog Max in Denver's Central Park neighborhood.
Colorado Politics: You took an unusual route to your seat on the RTD board, as the sole write-in candidate after the incumbent declined at the 11th hour to seek another term?
JoyAnn Ruscha: It was a couple of days after petition signatures were due when folks realized that Director (Shontel) Lewis wasn't running again for RTD. I had gotten a call from a colleague who said that the seat was open and that Mayor Hancock would be appointing the next director, and I thought, "Wait, we could have recruited a disability advocate to run for the board." So I looked at statute and checked in with the secretary of state, and it turned out that the write-in affidavit wasn't due for a few more days, so I tried to recruit somebody to run for the board — I think we had maybe 36 or 40 hours to decide who was going to run — and my friends encouraged me to give it a go again.
So I spoke with my son, since I needed Judah's endorsement first, and after Judah made me promise that I would not spend our dinners talking about the RTD budget, then they approved. They also joked that because they were going to college this fall, it would be nice if I had a new hobby that was not my teenager. So I went ahead and filed the affidavit for a write-in. After the deadline, I was notified that another gentleman was also running — he had pulled a petition but didn't return the requisite number of signatures and was doing write-in instead — so initially, it was two of us. And maybe a month into it, he decided that he was not going to run after all, that he didn't have the capacity to run a campaign. And so then I was the only certified write-in.
CP: Why did you decide to run for the board?
JR: It was the same reason why I was trying to recruit a candidate — I wanted somebody who would be an advocate for people with disabilities and be an advocate for equity. I used to work in Montbello — I taught at the original Montbello High School before it shut down — and I saw firsthand what inequitable transit policies did to our students and to our families. I also am a parent of someone who relies on RTD, which means I also rely on RTD. Judah has ridden RTD since the age of 11 and has depended on it for school, and for the longest time, our schedules just lived and died by the RTD schedule. So RTD was a large part of my life before I ran the first time, and even though my son is older and sometimes rides with friends vs. taking the bus, they're still a pretty high-frequency user.
CP: RTD seems to be in a different place on the other side of the pandemic. What's your assessment of the agency's situation as you join the board?
JR: That's a big question. I think RTD has been in a transition for years. There were significant budget challenges that came up before COVID that were only exasperated when the pandemic hit. Those challenges have not been fully realized, nor have they been solved. We have an operator-retention and staff-retention problem that I think might have been mitigated a little bit by the new contract that we negotiated, but not enough. Inflation has outpaced our increase in operator wages. You hear stories about mid-level professionals not being able to afford rents in the metro area, so operator retention and even hiring is a significant challenge and will continue to be a significant challenge.
CP: What did RTD find out when the agency went without charging fares for the month of August?
JR: Initial data show that it was successful. However, I would have liked to see a longer period of data, because I don't think one month is enough time to see what free fares can do for ridership. That being said, we will likely do it again this summer, and that will be another point of data. So I'm in full support of that program and I would like to see this become a permanent yearly thing. Ridership is still down compared to pre-pandemic levels on most routes, but it has improved since the pandemic began, so I think you can say that we're in a recovery stage still.
RTD is also going through a fares and equity review process, so probably this summer the board will vote on potential fare increases or decreases or changes to our fare system, and I think that's actually exciting, because we might remove some of the zones and make it easier for passengers to understand what they need to pay for, where they can go with their fare, and just reduce any kind of interference. I feel like I'm a pretty savvy transit rider, but when I first rode RTD — and this was after riding different systems around the world — I was confused because we had very complicated fares. We've made some improvements, like in terms of transfers and having a three-hour day pass, but we could do better. Our fare zones are really complicated. I think sometimes folks pay for too much when they don't need a regional fare, and if you're going to ride RTD for the first time, you might get turned off because it looks really complicated. There are currently two options, one that would remove that regional fare and just have a flat fare, which I think is which would be better for most riders, as well as a potential decrease in the cost of, for instance, a monthly pass.
CP: what what are you bringing to the table from the perspective of the disability community?
JR: One of the things that the disability community has advocated for for years — actually, since the inception of the low income fares pass — was the inclusion of Access-a-Ride into that pass. Currently, if you are a low income, disabled rider who uses paratransit, you are not eligible for the low income fares discount, and we feel — and I agree — that it's an (Americans with Disabilities Act) violation. I got a notification a couple of days ago that in our next fare change, that low income Access-a-Ride riders will be eligible for a low income fares discount, which is a huge change, and I'm really excited about that. It looks like this is finally going to happen, and I will give (RTD Executive Director) Debra Johnson credit for that, for deciding to go ahead and rectify that wrong.
CP: I hear you're conducting a survey to catalog the stops in your district. What will that look like?
JR: There are almost 10,000 RTD stops across the entire Regional Transportation District, and maybe around 9,000 are active. What I am going to do is survey the ones in District B and do an accessibility assessment. When we talk about accessibility, we're talking about the ADA but we're also just talking about best practices, things that might not be specified under federal guidelines, but we know they create the best user experience not just for individuals with disabilities but for the public at large.
What I'm doing right now is compiling a list of all of the bus stops and noting if they are on RTD property, city property, private property, and then who is responsible for the upkeep of that stop. We will also do a separate assessment for the stations in the district, and that will have a different scoring sheet, but the initial focus is the bus stops. We have multiple bus stops in my district, particularly in Montbello, which aren't even near a sidewalk, which are completely inaccessible for people with disabilities for anybody with mobility needs. We have several bus stops that are also just out in the elements with no shade, and some of those stops are near our senior centers. So we have individuals who are elderly and/or have disabilities, and their nearest bus stop might not be fully accessible, or if it is technically accessible. It can still be a pretty unpleasant rider experience when we have inclement weather or even in the summertime. So what I would like to do is assess these transit stops not just for ADA but also just for rider comfort.
I have volunteers who are helping me. We will take photos and have our own internal grading system, we'll share our methodology and then we'll put it into a database which will be open to the public, along with photos and a map, using Google Maps, so you can click on the map and the the photo will pop up of the stop and then everything will be color-coded on the map so you can see what grade we gave it. Depending on how many volunteers I have, it will take anywhere from four months to 10 months. It's a lot of stops, and we are not going to release the data until we have every single one accounted for.
The purpose of this project is to highlight accessibility needs in transit. It is a snapshot of a larger problem, a national problem really. This is not about pointing a finger at RTD. Quite frankly, RTD is only responsible for like 1% of all of our transit stops in terms of maintenance and snow removal. A lot of it falls on localities. I know that this issue with transit accessibility and safe streets and safe sidewalks can only be solved if everyone decides it's a problem that they want to solve it. So for this project, it means RTD, it means the City and County of Denver, it means Aurora, it means business improvement districts, neighborhood groups, private property owners, it means people have to get together and say, "Enough is enough."
It has been over 30 years since the Americans with Disability Act was signed, and we need to ensure compliance with the ADA as well as general safety for our passengers. The hope is that we get a broader policy conversation started, highlighting these issues. In my community, we talk about accessibility and transit all the time, but putting it on the on the map, literally, and hopefully getting some attention, I think, will change larger policy conversations.
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