Claudia Folska's resume is impressive. In college, she started a nonprofit. After graduate school, she biked from Pakistan to China. This past spring, she earned a dual doctorate from the University of Colorado. And best of all, she once groped Arnold Schwarzenegger -- a feat she jokes that she could get away with because she's blind. Now Folska, who's the subject of our cover story, "Fare Treatment," is embarking on a new challenge: running for RTD Board of Directors.
RTD races don't usually get much love. Listed at the bottom of the ballot, they're an afterthought for most voters. "If we had a dog catcher race, we'd be right above that," says current board member Bill McMullen.
But some argue that ignoring RTD is a mistake. After all, the Regional Transportation District has a $445 million annual operating budget and is looking to spend billions more in the coming years on a massive expansion. "It just flies under the radar," says Roger Sherman, a former RTD board member. "The level of scrutiny and the level of participation and the level of interest in these races isn't commensurate with the amount of money and the real impact RTD has on the region."
RTD has been important to Folska since she moved to Colorado more than a decade ago. The quality of Denver's public transportation system played into her decision to relocate here from southern California, she says; because she's blind and can't drive a car, buses and trains are the main way Folska gets where she needs to go.
That's one thing that sets her apart from her opponents: mortgage banker Jeff Bjorlin, lawyer and libertarian blogger Dave Williams and former Jeffco school board member Vince Chowdhury. All four are running to represent RTD District E, which includes parts of Denver, Aurora, Greenwood Village and Centennial.
Folska's platform, which is described in detail in "Fare Treatment," includes finding funds to complete the enormous FasTracks project by 2020, increasing RTD ridership and making smaller, common-sense changes that she says will make the system more user-friendly.
For instance, Folska would like to change the ticket vending machines at RTD stations. The sun glare on the screens makes them impossible to read for sighted people and for blind people, the machine will speak instructions if you push a button. But to tell which button to push, Folska points out, you have to see it.
So what do Folska's competitors believe?
Bjorlin says he'd been thinking of running for the RTD board for a while and when redistricting switched his district from A to E, where the current board member is term-limited, he decided to go for it. "I'm excited about what RTD is doing," he says. "I've always had a passion for transit."
Bjorlin is a Colorado native who works for mortgage bank MegaStar Financial. While his job doesn't always allow him to use public transit, Bjorlin says he takes buses and trains "as often as I can." He lives near the Yale Station, which he says "has its challenges because of parking. It's the biggest complaint of my neighbors. It fills up quickly." Like Folska, he notes that the ticket vending machines are hard to read -- "We need to get a sun shade," he says -- and says that he'd like to add the ability for riders to pay for their fare via credit card. "As RTD struggles with funding, we need to do everything we can to increase ridership and revenue," he explains.
Bjorlin would also like to make the GPS systems on RTD's buses accessible to riders. "Similar to San Diego and Portland, you can pull up a GPS app on your smartphone and you can see that the bus is four blocks away or thirty minutes away," he says.
Also part of Bjorlin's platform is a concept he calls The Last Mile. "You can't get door to door with RTD," he explains. He'd like to build partnerships in order to increase riders' options for getting to their final destinations, whether that's by installing B-cycle stations, building more walking paths or setting up a taxi stand.
Bjorlin says he's also committed to finishing the FasTracks project.
Williams, an attorney and the author of the libertarian blog Blue Carp (latest entry: "I got a personal e-mail from Beyonce!"), says he wants to change the culture of RTD when it comes to making promises. "The two biggest things that are important to me are no more over-promising and under-delivering," he says. RTD, he says, has "grandiose plans that are great, but they can't get them done."
Williams is the former chair of the Libertarian Party of Colorado and says he was encouraged to run by former RTD board member O'Neill Quinlan. He describes himself as a "practical libertarian, not an ideologue." In his opinion, "Mass transit is a great thing."
Williams says he plans to run a "relatively low-key" campaign. His platform includes making RTD's finances more transparent. He says he'd like to see an online database that explains how RTD spends its money. As Williams explains on his website, "You should be able to find out how much is spent on everything from paper clips to trains to morning donuts."
He's concerned with RTD's use of eminent domain, or seizing private property for public use. Williams says he recognizes that while it's a reality, he doesn't want to see that power abused. "I don't want it used to give land to developers for private projects," he says. "I don't want government forcing people to sell property they don't want to sell."
As the result of a random drawing, candidates for District E will be listed alphabetically on the ballot -- hence Williams's campaign slogan: "Last on the ballot, first in your heart!"
Chowdhury is the only one of the four candidates who has previously been elected to public office. For eight years, he served on the Jefferson County Board of Education. He resigned in 2008 after he was arrested for slapping and allegedly choking his then-sixteen-year-old daughter. According to the police, Chowdhury became angry when his wife and daughter didn't respond quickly after he got home and honked his horn for them to open the garage door. Three weeks later, the Jeffco school board asked Chowdhury to resign.
Today, Chowdhury says, "if I could turn the clock back, I would do it differently." He says he's moved on from the incident and "if anybody brings that up, it is nothing but a distraction." The election, he says, "is about the issue at hand, not what happens in a fifteen-minute incident in a person's life."
An insurance agent, Chowdhury moved from Jefferson County to Aurora about four years ago. He didn't waste any time getting involved. He serves on both the Aurora Citizens Advisory Budget Committee and the Arapahoe County Citizen Budget Committee. "I'm very number-driven, very savvy as far as financial matters," Chowdhury says.
Chowdhury says he's a frequent RTD rider and is conscious of the environment. ("I have Toyota Prius," he explains.) While he believes in public transit and campaigned for the tax to fund FasTracks in 2004, he says he's disappointed with how RTD has handled the project -- especially the escalating costs. "I wanted good public transportation, but RTD has failed," he says. While he's committed to finishing all of FasTracks, he thinks RTD should focus on building the rail line to DIA sooner rather than later. "That's where you win the hearts and the minds of the people," Chowdhury says.
Chowdhury says he'd also like to see RTD finish the I-225 Rail Line and says he'd focus on nurturing public-private partnerships to get that done. "If the public gives me an opportunity to be at the table, I'm an independent thinker who will look at public-private partnerships and be forceful about finishing the project on or under budget," he says.
He'd also like to focus on fostering transit-oriented development, or residential and commercial building around transportation hubs, such as light rail stations.
The four candidates will participate in a forum on Saturday, September 29 from 3:30 to 5 p.m. at the Eloise May Library, 1471 South Parker Road, in Denver. The forum is sponsored by the League of Women Voters and is open to the public.
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