RTD Board Approves Six-Month Fare Discount for Yet-to-Open N Line

RTD's latest commuter rail line, the N Line to Thornton, is scheduled to open in spring or summer 2020.
RTD's latest commuter rail line, the N Line to Thornton, is scheduled to open in spring or summer 2020. RTD
After the latest round of delays, the Regional Transportation District’s N Line between Union Station and Thornton won’t begin service until mid-2020, five years later than originally planned. But in return for their patience, riders in north metro Denver will get to enjoy a simpler, lower fare once the line opens — at least for a while.

RTD’s Board of Directors voted 11-4 on Tuesday, November 19, to approve a six-month “Promotional Fare Pilot Program” that will let riders pay a flat $3 for a one-way trip of any distance on the N Line, temporarily doing away with the $5.25 regional fare that many riders on the thirteen-mile commuter rail line will eventually pay for a trip into central Denver.

RTD has offered short-term fare discounts before, including a free-fare period during the G Line’s first two weeks of operations earlier this year. But the N Line program is one of its most significant to date, at once an effort to boost flagging ridership numbers and an olive branch to communities in the north metro area frustrated by the route’s repeated delays.

“I think this is the kind of innovation that our constituency is asking for,” said boardmember Troy Whitmore, who represents parts of Thornton and other communities that will be served by the N Line. “I think it’s a step in the right direction to restore, or at least build, trust in our region. Hopefully it’s a great, successful model for the future.”

Other boardmembers, however, questioned why RTD wasn’t working more broadly to lower fares across the system, rather than passing a single discount program.

“I, like many directors, agree with the spirit of this proposal,” said Director Shontel Lewis. “I would be in support of this, or at least I would be closer, if we were looking at local fares and regional fares, but we are not.”

At $3 for a one-way ticket, RTD’s local fares are some of the highest in the country. But as the agency looks to reverse a five-year trend of declining ridership, and particularly a steep drop in light-rail ridership that began earlier this year, multiple boardmembers, along with General Manager Dave Genova, have voiced support for exploring the possibility of a simpler fare structure.

To that end, the N Line promotional period — which the agency estimates would result in the loss of about $180,000 in revenue — will “help provide better information for future fare analyses and policy decision-making,” RTD staff wrote in a memo to the board. Several boardmembers expressed interest in expanding the program beyond the N Line.

“We are in a position where we need to experiment,” boardmember Claudia Folska said of the discount. “I think we need to give it a go, because things are pretty grim for us right now.”
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff