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RTD in crisis: New CEO takes aim at declining ridership, disgruntled drivers, complicated fares

Deep criticism of Denver's broken transit system
Posted at 3:20 PM, Jun 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-08 01:33:04-04

DENVER -- Despite funding relief from federal government as part of the CARES Act in the amount of $232 million, RTD is still in a pickle. Two-thirds of RTD’s budget comes from local sales and use tax dollars, which has resulted in a $28.5 million decline since the COVID-19 crisis started.

What light rail is in metro Denver – and what it desperately wants to be – are, for all intents and purposes, light years apart. And there are many critics about those shortcomings.

“It tends to focus more on areas that have more of an affluent population,” said rider Leo Murray.

“It’s a flawed system,” said Town of Parker Mayor Jeff Toborg.

“This track goes nowhere,” said Brother Jeff Fard, a native of northeast Denver and an activist for underserved communities of color.

The rail initially aimed to transform how people in metro Denver get around.

An ambitious vision in the 70's called for “Personal rapid transit” where riders would step up to an elevated platform high above the streets, push a button, select their destination and a Jetson’s type pod would appear and whisk you off on tracks crisscrossing in the air above the Mile High City.

Today, RTD is a series of rail lines that do crisscross the city – sort of.

The FasTracks map is looking more and more complex, albeit at ground level, not a gloriously envisioned elevated system.

The criticism of FasTracks runs deep. Cost overruns, expensive ticket prices, declining ridership and the fact that most commuters are still in their cars.

Recent statistics show more than 70% of all trips around Denver today include a solo driver.

“The community is not benefiting from FasTracks,” said Fard.

So, let’s take a ride on this complicated train by talking with RTD’s new CEO, those riding the rails, a mass transit advocacy group, and we start with that criticism which comes from those living and working on all sides of the tracks.

Parker wants out

“It’s pointless,” Toborg said. “For the Town of Parker – (RTD) is doing nothing. Literally nothing.”

Toborg says tax dollars from his city versus service from RTD amount to a 27% return on investment.

“We remitted about $11.5 million and we got a mere $3.5 million in services,” Toborg said.

He’s helping to spearhead a bill in the state legislature that would end Parker’s relationship with RTD for good.

“It makes no sense to me to throw good money at no service,” Toborg said. “And I would like to say bad service, but it’s just no service.”

Toborg said if RTD’s not going to deliver quality service to Parker and other outlying communities, they should handle mass transit themselves.

“In Parker – for $11 million – I could create a great transportation system for our citizens.”

Not serving communities of color

Fard tends to agree.

“It was laid with promises that it would go somewhere,” Fard said. “But it goes nowhere. This line doesn’t go to the airport.”

Fard points out that the Five Points line, which sits right on Welton Street, is the only line running right next to a neighborhood sidewalk and within feet of many store fronts.

“It’s very difficult to deny that it’s a very dangerous situation,” Fard said. “Here, you’re just a step away from the tracks. It’s environmental racism.”

Fard says countless stops like this one are no longer active.

“For someone who’s able bodied, that’s not a problem, but for someone experiencing a disability – it is a problem,” he said. “Seniors would actually call me and say, ‘You know what – I can’t make it to church’ because they’ve shutdown so many stops along the route that it’s very inconvenient.”

RTD is now launching an 18-month equity audit promising to review service routes and the complicated fare structure.

A local fare runs anywhere from $3 to $5.25, and a ride to Denver International Airport is $10.50.

“It’s just as expensive as getting into a ride share,” Fard said.

Part of the reason for sky high fares is a lack of federal, state and local funding.

“It’s kind of like the Colorado legislature gave birth to a child that they don’t want to take care of,” Fard said. “So, they’re like a deadbeat parent.”

Is the fix expansion?

Deyanira Zavala is the CEO of a nonprofit called Mile High Connects. Zavala says you can’t just pull the plug on something cities and state have already sunk so much cash into.

“Think about where we’re putting our money,” Zavala said. “Is it in the communities that rely on transportation? Is it for the users that are going to be the customers of RTD?”

Zavala believes the best way to fix RTD is to expand it – making it too convenient to avoid.

“More of a grid system so you know - my bus is going to be here in 5 minutes and I don’t have to guess when it will be here,” Zavala said.

Rider criticism

Those riding the rail and bus lines also believe it’s a broken system.

“Public transit is severely underfunded,” said Murray. “And it leaves people in lower classes kind of stranded where they are.”

“As we continue to develop as a country, as a town, whether it’s Arvada or Denver or anywhere in the U.S. – how are you going to get from one place to another?” said rider Bryan Saba.

Both Saba and Murray believe there’s a better way forward. Perhaps we should take a page out of Europe or Southeast Asia’s book.

“The last time I was on a train was in Japan,” said Saba. “Now, talk about a train system.”

“100% agree,” said Leo. “We need high speed trains connecting us from coast to coast.”

“Do I think electric cars are the answer? The answer’s, 'No.' We’re going to have to find a way to rapidly get from one place to another, cleanly, safely and efficiently.”

It could be worse. A recent WalletHub study ranked Denver 12th in the U.S. for public transportation. The top five cities were Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Madison, Wisconsin.

There are still many large cities with little to no rail transit whatsoever, including Tampa, Florida; San Antonio, Texas; Indianapolis, Indiana; Columbus, Ohio and Oklahoma City.

New leadership

New RTD CEO Debra Johnson accepted the role knowing the agency is in crisis mode.

“We need to create a system that’s welcoming to all,” Johnson said. “I really believe that public transportation is the great societal equalizer. Is there room for improvement, like with anything? There is.”

Johnson has worked for systems that are much more robust, like the San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit.

“We need to just step back and look at what might be the most viable mobility options for our community,” Johnson said.

She’s aware of declining ridership, funding gaps, driver shortages and a complicated fare structure.

“It is a cumbersome system,” Johnson said. “How can we be more adaptable? Does a 40-foot bus, a 60-foot bus make sense, or should we use smaller vehicles where it’s similar to ride hailing? We need to be nimble.”

FasTracks has built out 99 miles of the promised 122 miles of track, with the northwestern line to Boulder now on deck, hut at a price tag around $2 billion to complete, many believe we should put that money elsewhere, not in a line to Boulder.

“It’s irrelevant to, I would say, the majority of people in Colorado,” Fard said. “And to people of color, it’s particularly irrelevant.”

Johnson certainly has her work cut out. The lack of faith in the broken system is threatening to run the whole thing off the rails.

“We want out,” Toborg said. “We’re done.”

“We have buses sitting in parking lots not even running,” Zavala said. “And that doesn’t serve anyone.”

“I think the fix for RTD is for the legislature to recognize they need to take care of the child they created,” Fard said.

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