Riding RTD buses, on certain routes, is an awful lot like using my old roommate's microwave oven: It's steamy, filled with food splatter and spittle, smells like armpits, and you just never know what fresh hell you are going to find in there. But the Regional Transportation District's board of directors recently voted to cap the spending for 32 new shuttle buses at $21,147,350, amidst objections from two board members that the new buses might not be worth the price being discussed -- or any price at all.
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RTD is considering buying the new buses from DesignLine, a company out of Charlotte, North Carolina, to exchange them for 36 buses that RTD currently operates. Those buses are manufactured by the now-defunct company TransTeq. The current mall shuttles were purchased in 1999 and are having repair/maintenance issues, exacerbated by TransTeq's going out of business and therefore rendering parts harder to come by.
The Denver Post reports that RTD mechanics "have used parts from other vehicles or have gone to an outside shop to keep the shuttles moving." So these buses are a lot like my old Ford Tempo? Broke-ass buses are unlikely to be popular with the folks who ride them every day for work, school or mall recreation.
The two dissenting RTD board members, Natalie Menten and Paul Solano, are asking the board to take a step back from approving any purchases from DesignLine so that they can take time to review the company's records and hopefully assure they aren't buying more broke-ass busses. Menten told the Post: "I have a great concern about this company."
Board member Judy Lubow told the Post that it appeared RTD was rushing into an agreement with DesignLine because it is one of the few companies in the United States that designs mall shuttles."It seems like we are taking who we can get," she said.
However, the same story reports that RTD officials said they've investigated DesignLine and found past problems resolved. And two prototype buses are currently being used on the 16th Street mall that have better maintenance records than the TransTeq vehicles.
As a bus rider myself, I'd probably feel a lot better about the new buses if I had assurance that the board members voting to buy them actually used the bus system in metro Denver and could judge for themselves whether or not they are clunkers -- as well as get some perspective on how accidents and service delays affect the riders.
As a matter of fact, I propose that every RTD board member be required to ride the No. 15 East Colfax Avenue bus route every day for a week -- east or west bound, it doesn't matter which. That particular route (and those particular buses) would offer a productive insight into what I call "The Real-Real RTD Experience."
If they are seriously interested in the transportational fate of actual, consistent RTD customers -- and their fares -- what better way to understand than getting their hands, feet, ankles, arms, legs and occasionally necks dirty on a ride downtown with the unwashed masses? It would be a veritable amusement-park ride, complete with random twists and turns, bus drivers who might be legally insane on a good day and simply malevolent on a bad one, religious nutters spouting various incarnations of the gospels, sullen tweens mad-dogging each other and hookers and homeless folks and all of the above getting high. This, of course, would all be under the blanket aroma of body odor, dried urine and cigarette smoke.
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A week's worth of this should produce some perspective, on topics such as how annoying it is to be on a sardine-packed bus under good circumstances, and how possibly getting stuck on a broken-down one might lead to an impromptu reenactment of Les Miserables. I think RTD can make our tax dollars work harder at checking out this new bus-building company -- or maybe buy us all roller skates.