Three questions for RTD as a momentous 2024 for transit is just down the tracks  (2024)

Progress toward a more useful transit system could have a moment in Colorado in 2024.

Advocates are jockeying for a vote on a tax to start building Front Range Rail. Denver is breaking ground on an expansion of “bus rapid transit.” And the state’s biggest transit agency is experimenting with free, cheaper or just simpler fares.

Prospects for these big policy goals would look rosier if the Regional Transportation District, tasked with providing transit for 3 million people in the Denver metro area, could improve its performance and image. Like most American transit agencies, RTD’s ridership is still down by millions of boardings a month from pre-COVID levels. And even those pre-pandemic numbers were falling from service problems related to lack of drivers.

What is RTD trying for its next act, in recovering from COVID and helping Colorado achieve its goals for ozone and greenhouse gas reductions? We talked with RTD chief Debra Johnson, who joined the agency in August 2020 and inherited a multitude of challenges.

Why is RTD, which needs more money, cutting its fares in January?

The fare cut beginning Jan. 1 is across the board, and also goes a long way toward simplifying a fare structure that was not only pricey, but extremely confusing. No more regional route prices, for one big change.

A standard three-hour ticket will cost $2.75 beginning Jan. 1, on either local or regional routes, a big difference from the current $3 for local rides and $5.25 for regional. The airport train will be $10, down from $10.50.

The full-price monthly pass takes a big cut, from $114 local passes and $200 regional passes down to a uniform $88 for next year.

After a detailed study of RTD’s long standing tiered fare structure, Johnson said, the agency focused on three goals: “Equity, simplicity and affordability.” Transit planners should be looking to eliminate “all barriers to entry into the system,” she said. Some people step on board without $2.75 in cash, others are confused by ticket machines, and still more wondered whether their ride was going to cross a regional border and what the cost would be if it did.

Even Johnson, with a career in transit work and leadership, found RTD’s setup daunting. The new fare structure, she said, “recognizes that we wanted to ensure that somebody did not need a decoder ring.”

Fare cuts could cost RTD money, of course, but the reality is the vast majority of RTD’s revenue to pay for service comes from a dedicated sales tax imposed in the counties served by the agency. Metro retail sales snapping back after the pandemic losses had a far greater impact on agency stability.

Did two months of zero fares in 2023 boost RTD ridership in a big way?

Modestly. Not enough to make year-round zero fare a core RTD strategy for the future.

RTD’s report on two months of fare-free transit in July and August — paid for with state backfilling grants — found only a modest increase in ridership still far below pre-pandemic, full-fare levels.

RTD was seeing more than 9 million boardings a month in 2019. And even at those rates, the agency for 3 million metro residents had trouble hiring drivers and running a reliable system.

Ridership fell off a cliff as the pandemic unwound commuting habits. Boardings increased about 22% in the free July and August sessions of 2023, but RTD figures 12 percentage points were from free-fare seekers. The rest was from ongoing post-pandemic recovery, and a customary peak of transit trips in summer.

Even with the boost, boardings hit only 6.6 million in August, about 3 million below 2019.

RTD reports that the number of gasoline-powered car trips given up in favor of free rides made a very small contribution to cutting ozone-causing pollutants and total vehicle miles traveled.

Three questions for RTD as a momentous 2024 for transit is just down the tracks (1)

The free months were a victory for riders with disabilities, as RTD saw demand for its two disability-focused services rise 7% and 25%, respectively. But those services are also some of RTD’s most expensive to provide, per rider, and so a long-term stimulus in demand would need new sources of funding.

As it was, the fare-free program took $15.6 million from RTD in revenue and marketing costs, of which the state grant reimbursed $13.9 million.

Despite some of the 2023 successes, RTD concluded in a report on the program, “the cost of eliminating fares must be weighed against the modest increase in ridership and small reduction in VMT for the Denver region.”

Johnson said she was most proud of the zero-fare experiment working well even during the highest 2023 stress on the system, a weekend in mid-July.

“It was a perfect storm in that Taylor Swift was at Mile High, and the Rockies were playing the New York Yankees,” Johnson said. “So you had people converging in the Lower Downtown area that can walk and utilize transit, and we really received some great feedback,” without an accompanying spike in security incidents, she said.

Johnson said RTD doesn’t have plans to ask the legislature and the governor to expand zero fares for everyone. Where the agency feels it can do the most for equity is with younger riders. RTD is in the middle of its first fare-free academic year for all youth, including the many high schoolers who rely on RTD buses instead of school buses.

“Not everybody was born on a level playing field. And while we talk about access to public education, that critical word there is access,” Johnson said. If anything, she added, RTD will be pushing the legislature to help fund year-round zero fares for youth all across the state.

What will bring previous RTD riders back, and attract new transit fans?

RTD is not alone in its struggle just to get back to 70% of pre-pandemic ridership rates. Major cities from Dallas to Boston to Washington, D.C., to Seattle report similar deficits. And long before the pandemic, urban studies experts were declaring steadily dropping transit use across the country as an “emergency.”

Colorado’s air pollution regulators are counting on increased use of mass transit to speed up the progress on both greenhouse gas reductions and local pollutants that contribute to ozone. Early plans for a Front Range Rail system would include completion of a rail line from metro Denver to Boulder and Longmont, and on to Fort Collins. Federal officials have offered $500,000 in study money so far, with hints of more.

Denver will build, and RTD will operate, a new-to-Denver hybrid called “bus rapid transit” or BRT. The first corridor should break ground along East Colfax in 2024, home to the well-used No. 15 bus line. The concept is to use dedicated bus-only lanes in the middle of the avenue to support express routes and higher frequency akin to users hopping on old streetcars or newer train shuttles.

Meanwhile, RTD also has to find a larger maintenance budget to patch and upgrade the oldest parts of its light rail system, which first opened nearly 30 years ago.

Before COVID hit, RTD’s image was brutalized by constant headlines and consumer complaints about canceled trips because of driver or equipment shortages, and construction delays on new train lines. Johnson said the agency is proud of recent on-time and completed-trip statistics, with the percentages of on-time trains in the “high 90s” and parts of the bus system “in the high 80s.”

The extensive passenger survey that accompanied the 2023 zero-fare review reinforced what RTD has seen in national surveys, the agency emphasized. Customers seem to respond more elastically and enthusiastically to frequent, reliable service than they do to price changes. A commuter leaving work at night after a shift may not be as worried about a $3 fare as they are about their bus coming every 5 to 10 minutes instead of a half hour.

But even before adding new, more frequent trips, RTD must have the employees to maintain, repair and drive the equipment it already has. The agency has learned a few things about staffing in recent years, Johnson said.

“We haven’t had difficulty in hiring people. We have had difficulty in retaining individuals,” she said.

In hiring, RTD has always struggled with wage levels, competition from private industry, and safety questions from operators. A unionized, seniority-based labor pool means new employees rarely get the optimal work shifts.

Now, Johnson said, new challenges from applicants include the knowledge that their peers are offered remote work and flexible hours that RTD of course cannot match.

Among other efforts, RTD is trying to adjust its training to be more realistic about what a new driver or train operator might expect.

“If you’re training somebody, it’s Monday through Friday, eight to five,” Johnson said. “And then when it goes away from the training program eight to 10 weeks later, it turns out they’re on a shift that they commence at six o’clock in the evening, and don’t get off until two in the morning.”

Type of Story: News

Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Three questions for RTD as a momentous 2024 for transit is just down the tracks  (2024)

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