DENVER — Colorado's transit system has enjoyed success.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Holly Griffin, a regular rider.
But it has also endured some failures, especially during the pandemic.
“I used to take it a lot when I was going down to Rockies games, but once the pandemic hit, I dropped my season tickets and stopped riding,” said Andy Lyford, another rider.
Now, there’s a renewed effort to attract riders to RTD in a way that would save riders money while also working to save the environment.
“Transportation is actually the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state of Colorado and is a leading contributor to ozone,” said Dominique Gomez, deputy director of the Colorado Energy Office, which is part of the governor’s commitment to green energy.
But there are serious questions about whether a new state-funded plan will make a dent in traffic and ozone issues at all.
Riders have mixed feelings about RTD and the Zero Fare for Better Air concept.
“I think it’s great,” Griffin said. “Anytime anyone needs to get out of the city, it’s a very quick way to go meet friends.”
Lyford's main concern with riding now is safety.
“There’s stabbings on buses. There’s a lot of crime,” Lyford said.
“I go to work at 2 o’clock, and I get off at 10:38 p.m., and it’s really bad down here. It’s dangerous,” said Donna Simon, who is a frequent rider, though mostly out of necessity because she doesn’t own a car.
Simon doesn't think there's enough security.
“They need to have them on the trains constantly,” Simon said. “There are people just fighting out here, cursing, some of them walking around half-dressed. There’s crack use, all that stuff. It’s very unsafe and uncomfortable.”
The idea behind the state-funded plan is to get more people to ride — safety in numbers — while also reducing cars on the roads and, in turn, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions on long, hot summer days.
“Bettering our air, lessening the impacts on our environment,” said Debra Johnson, the CEO of RTD.
That’s one of the ideas behind the state’s new funding program for mass transit.
“It’s sort of a pilot,” Gomez said. “To provide free transit for ozone season, so particularly June, July and August. If we can get more people out of their cars and into transit, that will help with ozone.”
“So, when we’re looking to reduce our carbon footprint, hopping on board an RTD, that is really contributing to the betterment of our air quality, we believe,” Johnson added.
“It’s a health concern for everyone, for you and me, but particularly for small children, for the elderly, for people with respiratory illness,” Gomez said.
State climate experts say the ozone is so bad in the summer because of the longer days and stagnant conditions.
“A lot more sunlight and the sun angle is very high,” said Scott Landes, who supervises meteorology for the state of Colorado’s prescribed fire unit and air pollution control division. “Just the way the terrain is set up with the Palmer Divide to the south of Denver and then the foothills to the west, that means the air is very stagnant during the summer, and ozone thrives in stagnant conditions.”
While the benefit to the environment would be a bright spot, there’s still some haziness about the economic viability of a plan like this.
“You can’t force people onto public transportation,” said Darin Duber-Smith, senior economics and marketing lecturer at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “We’ve been trying it for decades and decades and decades.”
Duber-Smith rode RTD to and from work for 30 years, but he quit in 2018 "for good reason."
“Well, the same reason most everybody quit — the ridership,” Duber-Smith said. “When they were losing ridership, what they did was very bad marketing, which is raised prices. So, you’re paying a ton of money, it’s not comfortable during rush hour. During the rest of the time, it’s largely unsafe and stinky and dirty at best. They do the best that they can, but they’re understaffed.”
Johnson doesn’t disagree. She said staffing is an Achille's heel for RTD.
“We are having some challenges with people power,” Johnson said. “Often times, people just talk about operators, but we’re talking about people who can clean and service our vehicles, and it’s been challenging.”
While this program may be a step in the right direction, Johnson, who has 30 years of experience in mass transit that includes work in San Francisco and Los Angeles, said what’s truly needed to make mass transit in the Denver metro area more robust, reliable and safe is a lot more funding.
“What we’re trying to do is create a welcoming environment,” Johnson said. “There’s a myriad of ways in which we can do it, relative to putting forth public dollars to support the delivery of transit services.”
“I think she’s right,” Duber-Smith added. “If you want a robust public transportation system, it’s something that absolutely has to be subsidized, and heavily subsidized.”
Duber-Smith said mass transit isn’t like cell phone service or even ride share services where there’s ample competition to keep rates competitive and fair. He said mass transit only works well in other cities because the government funds it.
“That’s the point,” Duber-Smith said. “There’s no competition. This is government, so you know what happens when there’s no competition? Higher prices and lower quality.”
Unless, he said, it is highly subsidized, which it is in most places in the U.S. In fact, according to the Congressional Budget Office, state governments on average support 23% of transit agency operations in their respective states. Colorado, on the other hand, supports less than 1% of RTD’s annual operating expenses — a model many believe sets the agency up to fail.
And that brings us back to this new funding mechanism.
“This was part of the governor’s overall air quality package,” Gomez said. “So, this is a big package focused on improving air quality throughout the state. We saw a lot of support for this program, not only from legislators, but also from the transit agencies, as well as from the general public.”
The question is whether it will grow, shrink or die off completely. The answer to that could reveal the future of mass transit in the Denver metro area.
“They’re at a point right now where they don’t have enough ridership,” Duber-Smith said. “They don’t have enough customers to really even stay in business.”
“I definitely wish we had better public transportation in Denver,” Lyford said. “I’m a fourth generation native, and it’s the last thing we ever addressed in the city. We should have done it decades ago.”
“There’s a lot of people I work with, they depend on it,” Simon added.
The program isn't only available to RTD. Several cities throughout Colorado are participating this August, including Greeley and Pueblo.
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