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Long-distance biking proved addictive, however, and once she found a captain — the son of an Italian ambassador — Folska attempted another ride, this time from Pakistan to China. It was thrilling, she says, but her spouse was growing tired of her athletic pursuits. "My husband said, 'I think you're riding around the world enough. Let's make a family,'" Folska recalls. Their daughter, Sabine, was born in 1996. Political tension in Pakistan prompted the family to move back to California in 1998, and tension in Folska's marriage led to a divorce and a search for a new place to live. "I looked at the whole map of America and I said, 'Who's got the best transit and the best climate and the right size of population density?' and so on," she says. "I chose Denver."

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While RTD is often at the center of political disputes in the metro area — and often criticized for service cuts or fare increases — the Denver area tops U.S. News and World Report's list of the "10 Best Cities for Public Transportation" and regularly ranks high on similar lists.

The district is funded by sales taxes: six-tenths of 1 percent pays for the buses and trains, while another four-tenths of 1 percent funds FasTracks, a project approved by voters in 2004 to build 122 miles of commuter and light rail, eighteen miles of bus rapid transit, and 21,000 new parking spaces at stations. Completing FasTracks has been slower and more controversial than RTD had hoped; due to funding shortfalls, it's currently scheduled to be finished in 2044.

Claudia Folska is blind, but she's got a clear vision for the future of public transportation.
Anthony Camera
Claudia Folska is blind, but she's got a clear vision for the future of public transportation.
RTD boardmember Tom Tobiassen encouraged Claudia Folska to run for the District E seat.
Anthony Camera
RTD boardmember Tom Tobiassen encouraged Claudia Folska to run for the District E seat.

The people who pay those taxes live within a jagged boundary that includes all or part of eight counties and stretches north to Lyons, west past Evergreen, east into Aurora and south into the Pike National Forest. The district is split up into fifteen pieces, each of which is represented by an elected director. In most cities around the country, transportation directors are appointed; RTD is one of only three boards whose members are elected.

Folska is running to represent District E, which includes parts of Denver, Aurora, Greenwood Village and Centennial. Her competitors for the seat are Jeff Bjorlin, a mortgage banker; Dave Williams, a lawyer and libertarian blogger; and Vince Chowdhury, an insurance agent and former Jefferson County Board of Education member who resigned in 2008 following an incident in which he was arrested for slapping his teenage daughter.

"Claudia has a special case and would receive a sympathy vote, and none of us can compete," Chowdhury says. "But all we can do is communicate our platforms."

Endorsements are important in a small-money race like this, and Folska's list of supporters is impressive. It includes ten RTD boardmembers, U.S. representatives Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter, several state senators, city council members and the Denver Area Labor Federation. She's also been endorsed by the mayors of every city in her district except Centennial, whose mayor politely explained that she does not pick candidates.

The four candidates in Folska's race don't differ wildly in their opinions. Most want to improve RTD's efficiency, boost accountability and increase ridership. What sets Folska apart, her supporters say, is the depth of her knowledge. She's just as comfortable discussing the nitty-gritty of budget proposals and potential route changes as she is talking about the big picture.

"She has the capacity to understand the technology of transit — the details of it and the bottom line," says Stan Gronek, the financial secretary-treasurer of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001, which has endorsed Folska, "and she has the heart for the passenger, particularly the segment of disabled passengers who really need public transportation."

Her knowledge comes from experience with the world as well as with academics.

After living in Denver for a few years, Folska decided to go back to school once more, this time to earn a Ph.D. Inspired by her time in Pakistan, she set out to study the plight of women in developing countries. But that changed.

"I had this professor who said, 'You should study how blind people navigate in the built environment,'" Folska says. "I was so angry! I thought, just because I'm blind, I always gotta do blind stuff? But then I realized there wasn't anybody else. And I thought, do I want some sighted person to tell me, or should I do it myself, and for all of us?"

So she switched her focus, custom-tailoring an area of study that spanned the University of Colorado Denver College of Architecture and Planning and the CU Boulder Institute of Cognitive Science. For her dissertation, she asked blind people to draw maps of the route they walk from the light-rail station in downtown Littleton to the nearby Colorado Center for the Blind. "The question," she says, "was, 'Do blind people develop cognitive maps? And if they do, how are they similar or different to those of sighted people?'" To explain her findings in the simplest terms, she discovered that they do, but instead of using distant landmarks such as mountains or buildings, blind people navigate more often with sounds, smells and textures.

She took her research a step farther by examining so-called transit-oriented development, a hot but often poorly executed concept that consists of mixed-use residential and commercial properties clustered around a transportation hub such as a light-rail station. Folska prefers to call them "pedestrian-oriented developments," though many of them aren't. For instance, while there may be restaurants and shops next to a station, you have to drive to get there; oftentimes, there's no sidewalk that connects the stations to the shops.

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8 comments
jbelef
jbelef

I've had the opportunity to meet and hear Claudia Folska speak on the issues.  Even without her unique experience as a disabled RTD user, her credentials to be on the RTD board far outweigh all the other candidates combined!. See more here: http://www.claudia4rtd.com/

John
John

She's very cute!

tjtobiassen1
tjtobiassen1

Claudia Folska is very dynamic and multifaceted.   Check out Claudia Folska’s TV cooking show appropriately (on several levels) called “Cooking In the Dark”.  The out-takes are funny!  http://www.cookinginthedark.com/  …  

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

I too , share Folska's reliance on public transportation . My service dog & I wouldn't leave home w/o RTD's assistance . My ailments that prevent my driving are relatively new . I became dependent on the bus & for the most part , am pleased w/ it's services and understanding of needed expansions .

RTD , for the past 15 + yrs ,   has striven to keep up w/ Denver's exploding population growth . If I were to grade the system as a whole , I'd give them 9 out of 10 stars . The addition of Folska could bring it to 10 out of 10 !

Tom Tobiassen
Tom Tobiassen

Claudia will be an asset on the RTD Board of Directors! Her knowledge and vision for RTD is second to none for this volunteer position. Claudia relies on RTD's buses and light rail for work, school, shopping since she does not drive or own a car. Claudia understands the needs of the rider. She clearly is the best qualified and most knowledgeable candidate.

tjtobiassen2
tjtobiassen2

Check out the videos about Claudia Folska at www.Claudia4RTD.com  ....  

Tom Tobiassen
Tom Tobiassen

Claudia will be an asset on the RTD Board of Directors! Her knowledge and vision for RTD is second to none for this volunteer position. She clearly is the best qualified and most knowledgeable candidate and does not need the "sympathy" vote!

 
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