One month after first unveiling an unprecedented proposal to temporarily reduce service to deal with a worsening driver shortage, officials with the Regional Transportation District say that a majority of riders are on board with the plan.
"I think it shows that, on a temporary basis, [riders] are willing to deal with a bit of a reduction to have the reliability," Dave Genova, general manager, told reporters during a briefing on Thursday, November 21. "And of course we've been very up front that this is temporary, and we will have a restoration plan."
At the request of RTD boardmembers, some of whom remain skeptical about service cuts, agency staff conducted a two-week outreach campaign to solicit feedback from members of the public on its plan, which would suspend a "significant amount of service" across its bus and light-rail systems for an as-yet-undetermined period of time. An online survey of more than 13,000 respondents found that 59 percent supported the temporary cuts, while 58 percent of the 5,000 polled in a telephone town hall said the same.
Pauletta Tonilas, RTD's assistant general manager of communications, acknowledged concerns about the phrasing of the questions, but argued that they accurately reflected the difficult choice that the agency faces. As Denver transit riders experienced again throughout the week, delays and cancellations are becoming a daily occurrence as RTD struggles to fully staff its services.
"Our team, when we were putting the survey together, talked a lot about the wording of it, and how to not guide people," Tonilas said. "We weren't trying to say, 'This is where we should end up.' It literally is about — do we stay with the situation we have, knowing that pretty much every day we're going to have to drop trips? Or do we do a temporary service reduction where we can provide more reliable service?"
As a shortage of drivers plagues transit systems across the country, RTD officials say that although they've taken steps to dramatically improve their recruitment efforts, they have consistently struggled to retain employees. The agency hired nearly 1,000 bus and light-rail operators over the past 33 months but saw nearly as many leave their positions — a turnover equivalent to more than three-quarters of its operator workforce in less than three years.
Management blames RTD's retention problem on increases in "mandating," or forced overtime; the vast majority of its bus drivers and a growing number of light-rail operators have been required to work six days a week, some of them for years at a time. Widespread mandating and the ongoing operator shortage are a vicious cycle, officials say, and temporary service cuts could help prevent things from spiraling out of control.
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"We want to minimize the impact to the public as much as possible," Genova said. "But we want to be able to get in a situation where we can get operators some relief and get the situation stabilized. We also want to be successful with this; we want to get to a point in time where we are stabilized and we can start incrementally returning that service."
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001, which represents RTD drivers, has previously expressed opposition to the proposed cuts, but a "slight majority" of operators contacted as part of the agency's outreach effort support the plan, Tonilas told boardmembers at a meeting later on Thursday.
RTD staff are expected to present a more detailed plan for the temporary cuts at a board meeting in early December, but even if the board ultimately approves the plan, service changes aren't likely to take effect until next spring. It's not clear yet how long the potential service reduction would last, but boardmembers and agency staff are adamant that it won't last indefinitely.
"We haven't really looked at the time frame," Genova said. "But we've heard from stakeholders: 'How do we know it's not going to be permanent?' We've heard that loud and clear."