RTD Sees a Future That Runs on Transit — but First, It Has to Weather a Crisis

Without more riders — and more money — RTD could be headed for serious trouble.
Without more riders — and more money — RTD could be headed for serious trouble. Westword
Sometimes being a public-transit advocate means showing up to a community meeting, writing your city council member or canvassing in support of a bond issue. And sometimes it means dancing to the Beach Boys near a downtown Denver bus stop in thirty-degree weather.

“Not quite yet,” Danny Katz shouts above the sun-soaked melodies of “I Get Around” as twenty or so of his bundled-up cohorts work their way through ever-so-slightly-choreographed dance moves. “All right, here comes our line…”

As the second verse begins, the small crowd shouts over the music, offering Brian Wilson’s lyrics an emphatic correction: “We always take the BUS, it’ll never be beat!”

The short-lived dance party — organizers, tongues planted firmly in cheek, called it Denver’s first “transit flash mob” — is meant to celebrate the installation of two dedicated bus lanes on 15th Street between Court Place and Larimer Street. The Department of Public Works says the lanes will dramatically improve travel times for riders along the often-clogged corridor and beyond.

“It’s not just about moving from Civic Center to Union Station,” says Katz, director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, a member organization in the pro-transit Denver Streets Partnership. “Eight hundred buses come down this street every day. So if we improve this, we’ve got all sorts of impacts in multiple areas.”

With their dance number finished, Katz and his fellow advocates spend some time during the evening rush hour cheering the arrival of each westbound bus at the 15th and Larimer stop: the 15 from Aurora, the 19 from Northglenn, the 28 from Central Park Station. In the complicated, slow-changing, sometimes-tedious world of transit policy, it’s times like these that the rubber literally meets the road — with a priority lane here, a few minutes shaved off a trip there, a thousand tiny changes that add up to concrete system-wide gains.

The 15th Street bus lanes are a small victory — a few buckets’ worth of red paint spread across two lanes of traffic for a ten-block stretch, with three more downtown streets due to get the same treatment over the next year or so. But small victories are the only kind Denver public-transit advocates have been able to celebrate lately.

State and local leaders mostly agree that the key to addressing a wide range of problems in Denver — from managing population growth and reducing traffic to improving air quality and tackling climate change — is to get more people out of cars and onto public transportation. But even as Denver and other Front Range governments set ambitious targets and unveil flashy new plans to “modernize mobility,” there are signs that the transit agency that serves more than three million people across the metro area is headed for major trouble.

Established by the state legislature in 1969, RTD is currently funded in large part by a 1 percent sales tax collected across its service area — which includes all or part of Denver, Boulder, Adams, Arapahoe, Jefferson, Broomfield and Douglas counties — along with fare revenue and state and federal grants. A part-time, elected board of directors, one from each of RTD’s fifteen districts, is responsible for approving budgets, service changes, agency contracts and more.

Over the course of a single weekday, people in metro Denver collectively travel more than 110 million miles — greater than the distance between the Earth and the sun. More than 1.8 million employed adults and 650,000 students need to get to work or school and back, and over 2 million passenger cars, freight trucks, buses and other vehicles clog the region’s streets and highways. Though it’s currently only responsible for moving a small fraction of these commuters through this vast transportation network, the RTD system has to balance a staggering array of competing needs and priorities.

During any given morning rush hour, perhaps 100,000 people board an RTD bus or train, bound for 100,000 destinations across a service area the size of Delaware. Eight hundred buses, driven by 800 operators, work their way between nearly 10,000 passenger stops along 169 fixed routes. Two hundred rail vehicles are weaving through downtown traffic or speeding through railroad crossings from Wheat Ridge to Peña Boulevard.

It’s an unthinkably complicated system even when everything is running smoothly, which is never the case.

Thousands of those passengers are running late. Dozens of those operators are slogging through a split shift on their sixth day of work in a row. Somewhere, a passenger who can’t pay bus fare is having the worst day of his life and beginning to make an operator feel unsafe. A bus is breaking down, a rail switch is malfunctioning, the forecast is calling for snow.

Right now, weather is the least of RTD’s concerns. Overall ridership is on pace to fall for the fifth year in a row, even as more rail lines have opened and Denver’s population continues to swell. The percentage of residents who commute to work in a single-occupant vehicle hasn’t changed much year to year; traffic is already bad and only projected to get worse. RTD is stuck in a protracted legal battle with the consortium that operates its three commuter-rail lines. And as a years-long staffing shortage nears a breaking point, management is readying an unprecedented proposal to make temporary but “significant” service cuts across the system before things spiral out of control.

As if all of that weren’t enough, RTD’s board is set to shave roughly $40 million off its 2020 budget as a result of slackening revenue forecasts, while fears mount that the global economy is headed for a recession that would further threaten the agency’s bottom line.

“In my opinion, RTD is in crisis,” director Angie Rivera-Malpiede told agency staff during a board meeting on October 22. “And this is a district-wide issue; it’s not just an RTD issue. In everything that I read, in every campaign that happens, the number-one issue is transportation, and transportation is the backbone of this community.”

“We certainly have some challenges,” says RTD General Manager Dave Genova. “Our biggest challenge is availability of workforce, especially with rail operators and bus operators. I’ve been here almost 26 years, and it’s been a common theme: Do we have enough workforce available for the work that we want to do?”

click to enlarge General Manager Dave Genova has been with RTD for 25 years and was tapped to lead the agency in 2016. - RTD
General Manager Dave Genova has been with RTD for 25 years and was tapped to lead the agency in 2016.

In October, the agency officially embarked on Reimagine RTD, a two-year effort to gather public feedback, re-evaluate its services and strengthen its plans for the future. But some worry that RTD has entered what transit experts call the “death spiral”: Reduced ridership leads to lower revenues, forcing service cuts and fare increases, which reduces ridership further, continuing a vicious cycle.

“It’s just an absolute mess,” says Ed Slattery, a transit advocate and former RTD bus driver who ran unsuccessfully for a board seat in 2014. “The city will be lucky to have a bus system at the rate it’s going.”

As they packed into a bar in Union Station on election night 2004, supporters of Referendum 4A steeled themselves for a long, agonizing wait to find out whether voters had approved the measure, which proposed funding $4.7 billion in new bus and rail projects through a 0.4 percent sales tax increase across the Regional Transportation District. Polls had been encouraging, but tax hikes were always a tough sell in Colorado, and “FasTracks,” as RTD had dubbed the plan, was unlike anything a major American city had tried before.

In the end, there was little suspense; FasTracks won by a comfortable sixteen points. As the Yes campaign celebrated, one supporter sounded particularly triumphant: Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who helped lead a coalition of business and environmental groups and prevailed over opposition that included Republican Governor Bill Owens and an army of conservative anti-tax crusaders. The success of FasTracks, along with other measures the first-term mayor had championed, would soon lead the Rocky Mountain News to fawn over Hickenlooper’s “golden political touch.”

“I hope 20 years from now people will look back and say, ‘What a wonderful night that was in 2004 — something that dramatically changed our community for the better,’” Hickenlooper told the Denver Post as the celebration wore on.

Fifteen years later, the feeling that most people in Denver have about FasTracks these days is no feeling at all. The share of commuters in RTD’s service area who take transit to work hasn’t budged since its passage, and in fact trended downward for several years following the opening of the first FasTracks rail line in 2013. Delays and cutbacks caused by the Great Recession have left large portions of the plan unfinished — including, notoriously, its promised rail line to Boulder and Longmont, now slated for completion in 2044.

However, it would be wrong to say that FasTracks was a flop. After a rough start, the A Line now carries an average of more than 20,000 people a day between the airport and Union Station, and earlier this year, RTD doubled the number of cars on the route in response to better-than-expected demand. The agency’s makeshift replacement for the Boulder rail line, the Flatiron Flyer, has steadily grown its ridership and helped reduce congestion on U.S. 36. FasTracks paved the way for the renovation of Union Station and catalyzed billions in “transit-oriented development,” the agency says. Overall rail ridership has surged by nearly 60 percent over the past decade, and advocates say that Denver would be in dire straits without the project, which is about 70 percent complete.

“I think FasTracks has been a big success,” Katz says. “If you think about the Denver metro area without the trains and without the Flatiron Flyer, it would be a complete nightmare to not have that foundation of transit.”

But while expanded light-rail service and new commuter-rail lines may have provided Denver with the “bones” of a robust, regional network, the city’s next big investment in public transit is unlikely to involve trains. A growing chorus of transit advocates argue that the key to growing ridership is a three-point plan: buses, buses and more buses.

“There’s an enormous mismatch between how badly American cities need good bus service and how committed their leaders are to providing it,” writes transit expert Steven Higashide in his new book, Better Buses, Better Cities. “Every major city in America has streets where, if the bus were made more convenient, transit agencies would reap a bumper crop of new riders.”

While it’s been a challenging decade for many transit agencies around the country, the ones that are faring best, advocates say, are those that have emphasized faster, more frequent, more reliable bus service, and have seen ridership grow as a result. Encouraged by the success of bus rapid transit (BRT) projects in Cleveland, Hartford, Minneapolis and elsewhere, American cities are working to make sure their streets prioritize buses. Earlier this month, in a more aggressive version of Denver’s 15th Street bus lanes, New York City closed an entire major street to private through-traffic; weeks later, the New York Times raved about the “transformative” impact the 14th Street Busway has had for riders and pedestrians.

“I think the emphasis on buses is important, because we can make those improvements very quickly,” Genova says. “And we can make them, obviously, for much less than a rail investment. The adjustments we can make in very little time, like bus lanes, traffic signal priority, those kinds of things — we can get a lot of bang for our buck with those.”

click to enlarge Faster, more frequent, more reliable buses — and infrastructure that prioritizes them — are a major point of emphasis for transit advocates. - DAVID SOTO
Faster, more frequent, more reliable buses — and infrastructure that prioritizes them — are a major point of emphasis for transit advocates.
David Soto

“If we treat [buses] the way we’ve treated the rail systems, which is to give them dedicated space, like the lane we have on U.S. 36, then they can be quite effective,” says Katz. “We see thousands of people being moved every day on Flatiron Flyer buses. And they tend to be cheaper and easier to roll out.”

RTD is wrapping up a years-long study of potential BRT projects in up to five corridors, but any resulting projects are still many years away and will require significant buy-in from local governments and state officials. A bond issue passed by Denver voters in 2017 put a $55 million down payment on a city-led BRT project along Colfax Avenue, but the project could cost up to four times that amount, and without more funding, it’s on hold indefinitely.

In addition to a lack of funding, there’s another major barrier to any potential expansion of bus service: a shortage of bus and train operators that has plagued RTD and many other U.S. transit systems for years. Without enough drivers, RTD has been forced to rely on “mandating,” or forced overtime, and many operators have been working six days a week for years at a time.

While RTD has raised wages for drivers and improved its recruitment numbers over the past few years, the agency is still having problems retaining staff, with many leaving after just a few months on the job — and it’s mandating, agency officials say, that’s largely to blame, along with other scheduling issues caused by the shortage.

“Seventy-five percent or so of our bus operators, we’ve hired in the last 33 months,” says RTD board chair Doug Tisdale. “But we haven’t been able to keep them all, because of the mandating and other quality-of-life issues.”

Earlier this month, agency staff told boardmembers that they were considering an unprecedented step to help reduce the need for mandating: suspending a “significant amount of service” across the system for an unspecified period of time. Officials are beginning a formal outreach process to gather feedback on the proposal, and haven’t yet offered details on which services could be cut or by how much. Once the plan is finalized, a formal decision by the board isn’t likely to be made until February, at the earliest.

“The notion of a temporary, sunsetted reduction of service, after we collaborate with our stakeholders and the communities and the rest,” Tisdale says, “would be to see if we can find the sweet spot, if you will, for provision of service and the number of operators, and then begin to lift up the number of operators without mandating and restore service. That’s the plan.”

Days after RTD staff presented their plan for service cuts to the board, a small group gathered at a community center in Curtis Park to share their thoughts on the agency’s future. Across the street, a light-rail train sat idle at the station where the L Line comes to an abrupt end; a planned extension under FasTracks, less than a mile long, would allow the line to continue running north and connect to the A Line. But the money isn’t there, and the project has no timetable for completion.

Inside the community center, RTD boardmember Shontel Lewis welcomed attendees to the event, at once an informal Reimagine RTD forum and an emergency listening session on the proposed cuts. “My priority is people,” says Lewis, who was elected last year to represent District B, encompassing much of northeast Denver and parts of Aurora. “Ensuring that we are centering people in our decisions, that we’re making sure that those that are most impacted by our decisions are closer to those decision-making opportunities.”

Though it was only a small group of fifteen or so who sat in a circle and shared their concerns, the speakers were a solid cross-section of RTD’s most important constituencies. The discussion that followed was a reminder of the complex, at times conflicting interests that Denver’s transit system has to manage on a daily basis.
Operators expressed their fears about safety on buses and trains, while homeless advocates worried about the impact of over-policing people in distress. Management outlined its case for possible service cuts while riders worried what those cuts could mean for low-income residents and people with disabilities.

“The bottom line is that we’re struggling,” said Michael Ford, RTD’s chief operating officer. “Nobody wants to reduce service, but at the same time, how do we stabilize to the point where we can be more reliable?”

“Getting folks to connect is incredibly important to me,” Lewis says. “Hearing about each other’s experiences, their truths. Hearing that operators are working six, seven days a week — but then folks are saying we need more service. We’re dealing with some realities.”

click to enlarge RTD's light-rail ridership is down n 2019, and agency officials aren't sure why. - RTD
RTD's light-rail ridership is down n 2019, and agency officials aren't sure why.

Ford listened patiently throughout the meeting, making sure to take notes when a rider wondered why more apartment buildings and workplaces in Denver don’t offer EcoPasses, or when a driver noted frequent issues with RTD’s mobile ticketing app. “We obviously have a lot of work to do with outreach and engagement — hearing from people, figuring out what we need to do to help stabilize service so you can depend on it, and our drivers can be feeling safe and comfortable and respected,” he told attendees.

Nearly everyone, including the agency itself, acknowledges that there are things that RTD could be doing better — better balances for it to strike, new technologies for it to embrace, efficiency gains it hasn’t realized. But there’s also a growing sense that altering the agency’s alarming trajectory will require not just better management of its current resources, but more resources, period.

The approval of FasTracks was the last significant investment in transit made by voters and elected officials in the Denver region. An RTD board proposal to ask district voters for another sales tax increase was shelved amid the recession in 2010 and hasn’t been revived. The modest transit funding boost included in Proposition 110, which would have hiked sales taxes statewide and devoted most of the revenue to car-centric road projects, was soundly rejected by Colorado voters last year. Even with portions of Denver’s last big transit project still unfinished, advocates say it’s time to start pushing for the next one.

“I don’t think we need to wait for all of FasTracks to wrap up,” Katz says. “We have to move forward with the next big investment, the next big expansion of the system.”

Genova and Tisdale did their best to put a positive spin on things as they made their annual presentation to lawmakers at the State Capitol on October 28.

“In the past year, we’ve had some exciting achievements,” Tisdale told members of the Transportation Legislation Review Committee. “Even though you’ve seen lots of stories, be aware that our bus system runs at about 99 percent of what we have scheduled. The light rail runs at about 98 percent, and the commuter rail runs at about 98 percent.”

After running through project updates and briefing lawmakers on the mandating issue and proposed service cuts, Genova wrapped up the presentation by touting the potential of Reimagine RTD, the agency’s extensive effort to plan for the “future of mobility” — aimed not just at optimizing its services and adapting to new technology, but at expanding the scope of what’s possible.

“We will be developing a fiscally constrained plan, but I think, more importantly, we’re going to be developing an unconstrained plan,” Genova said. “Oftentimes, we work within the means of the resources that we have, and [say], ‘Here’s what we can deliver,’ as opposed to, ‘What is really the true need and demand for transportation services out there, and how do we deliver those?’”

Transit experts, municipalities and RTD planners already have an informal wish list of improvements and innovations, from BRT corridors and other traditional transit projects to the expansion of its FlexRide shuttle service, and even driverless vehicles like the one the agency tested near the A Line’s Peña Boulevard stop earlier this year. One result of the Reimagine RTD process could be that those ideas start to cohere into a more specific expansion proposal.

click to enlarge A $200 million proposal to install a bus rapid transit (BRT) system along Colfax Avenue is only one-quarter funded. - CITY AND COUNTY OF DENVER
A $200 million proposal to install a bus rapid transit (BRT) system along Colfax Avenue is only one-quarter funded.
City and County of Denver

“I do envision that with that unconstrained plan, we may have a pretty good idea of what the mobility plan of the future could look like, and what would be required to fund it,” says Genova. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it would be an ask of the voters. The funding could come from a variety of places. We could be innovative and creative about that.”

Though there are multiple pathways to more funding, none is likely to be easy. The RTD board could simply ask voters in the district to approve a sales tax increase, as it did with FasTracks. Local officials and lawmakers at the Capitol are also working to craft legislation to authorize the Denver Regional Council of Governments to become a taxing authority, potentially opening up another funding source.

Federal grants for transit projects, meanwhile, have largely dried up under President Donald Trump, but if a Democrat were to win the White House in 2020, that would undoubtedly change. In Denver, voters this week could approve Mayor Michael Hancock’s new Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, which would replace Public Works.

There’s no shortage of other tools in the transportation-funding toolbox. Chicago is one of several major cities that has enacted fees on Uber, Lyft and other transportation network companies in order to fund transit, while New York City is set to charge a congestion fee on all private vehicles in Manhattan’s central business district beginning in 2021.

Advocates for increased transit funding say that where exactly the money comes from is ultimately less important than building broad support among voters and regional officials for greater investment. No one at the state or local level is yet leading the charge for a big, new transit proposal, the way Hickenlooper, Boulder Mayor Will Toor and others did in the early 2000s. The best way to change that is likely to be with a package of new projects and improvements that could galvanize support just as FasTracks did fifteen years ago.

“If we’re going to make the kind of investment we need to make, and get significantly more people using transit, then I think in the next six months to two years, we need a vision,” Katz says. “Whenever the Denver metro area has stepped up and said, ‘Okay, we want to make a big investment in transit,’ it’s oftentimes come with a vision. Here’s the need, and here’s what we can do. I think we’re lacking that right now.”

“Since 2004, and even before, the agency has been all about FasTracks,” Genova says. “Since we started FasTracks, we haven’t stepped back and taken a look at, what’s the next strategic plan for RTD?”

The challenges RTD is facing, from operator shortages to economic headwinds, aren’t going away any time soon. But many of its short-term problems may require long-term solutions, and as the agency prepares to weather the current storm, its leadership wants riders — and, perhaps just as important, non-riders — to help craft a vision for Denver’s future, and not be afraid to think big.

“We want to break down the perceived barriers and make transit as attractive as possible,” Genova says. “I think it’s going to be great to look at — what’s really the need? What can we do, and what’s it going to take to get there?”
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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