Even though the Regional Transportation District's taxpayer-funded budget runs well over a billion dollars a year, the eight-county transit agency mostly flies under the radar until service cuts, fare increases or striking bus drivers make headlines.
And not everyone is happy with the direction RTD is heading, with its rising fares and reduced service routes. Just last week, RTD officials began a listening tour to see if transit users were willing to consider fares of up to $3 starting next year under the threat of future service cuts if fares remain stagnant. So transit activists are running for seats on the RTD board of directors to steer the agency in a new direction. (Seven of the board's fifteen seats are on the ballot, and only three incumbents are running for re-election.)
JoyAnn Ruscha, 33, is a progressive Democrat who is running to represent District B, which extends from Five Points to Denver International Airport. Ruscha is a first-time candidate but is well-known among politicos for her consultancy company, J. Ruscha Communications, which has helped launch the campaigns of Denver progressives like Emily Sirota in House District 9 and Julie Gonzales in Senate District 34 this primary election cycle. Ruscha was also the Colorado political director for Bernie Sanders's 2016 presidential bid.
"It's scary being a candidate, but I called some friends, some elected officials I worked with in the Legislature, and they didn't talk me out of it. So either they believe in me or I don't have real friends," Ruscha says, jokingly.
Ruscha says she never aspired to run for office, but that she was motivated to run as a pro-labor progressive after seeing negotiations play out between RTD and its bus drivers, who were fighting for guaranteed bathroom breaks and higher pay. Along with worker's rights and fair pay, Ruscha is running to put a moratorium on public-private partnerships and end further privatization of RTD services, support a discounted youth pass so children in Denver can get to school, transition RTD's diesel buses to an electric fleet, keep as many jobs and construction contracts in the state, and advocate for increased service at the lowest possible rates.
“The RTD region covers...about 3 million people. That's a lot of folks that you're supposed to be serving. I think that budgets are moral documents; they are values documents," Ruscha says. "How we spend our money shows people what our priorities are."
Ruscha has been especially critical of the FasTracks program, where RTD has farmed out contracts to build, maintain and operate its commuter rail tracks in exchange for a 34-year contract with private firm Denver Transit Partners. The arrangement, she says, has created a lack of accountability and transparency and has even endangered the public because RTD has shifted the responsibility onto a private entity. While she isn't advocating to pull out of the agreement, she says she would oppose any new public-private partnerships to finance commuter rail projects in the future, like the northwest rail line between Denver and Longmont.
"If you look at [FasTracks], it's really a finance agreement," Ruscha says. "The reason why politicians like [public-private partnerships] is they can build infrastructure fast; it's not subject to the whims of voters — constantly asking for a tax increase or bond measure — it's done and it's not flexible."
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She attributes the public-private partnership for RTD's FasTracks commuter rail lines as the cause of frustration on the A-line, where horns have continually blared while approaching at-grade crossings because the gate technology the company used couldn't pass state or federal oversight for years.
Ruscha grew up in rural Iowa in Stone City, a tiny quarry-company town on the banks of the Wapsipinicon River. Her mom worked multiple odd jobs as a bartender, pest exterminator and housekeeper to make ends meet. As a kid, she remembers picking up cans and bottles to make a few extra dollars to pay for lunch. Her stepdad was a roofer whose union benefits offered the family some financial stability.
"If you remember the movie Friday Night Lights, it was sort of like that but, instead of Texas, it was Iowa. It was very middle-America," Ruscha says. "We were poor, but we had food in the winter. My stepdad had healthcare, which was only possibly because of his union."
Ruscha is one of four candidates running for District B to replace term-limited Barbara Deadwyler, who has the highest rate of absenteeism on the RTD board. Other candidates for District B include Chris Martinez, a former RTD board member who left in 2011 to become Denver Mayor Michael Hancock's director of small business opportunity. Hancock, coincidentally, lives in District B and has endorsed Martinez's bid.