Like so many other businesses and public services across the country, Denver's Regional Transportation District has been plunged into a financial crisis by the coronavirus pandemic, with ridership and revenues plummeting as Front Range residents comply with the strict social-distancing measures imposed by state and local officials. The long-term impacts of the crisis on the transit agency's budget — which was already under increasing stress — are likely to be severe.
But for now, at least, RTD will get some help keeping itself afloat in the form of $232 million in emergency grants from the Federal Transit Administration — the Denver metro area's share of a $25 billion relief package for U.S. public transit systems authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress last month.
"We know that many of our nation’s public transportation systems are facing extraordinary challenges, and these funds will go a long way to assisting our transit industry partners in battling COVID-19," K. Jane Williams, the FTA's acting administrator, said in a statement announcing the grants today, April 2. "These federal funds will support operating assistance to transit agencies, including those in large urban areas as well as pay transit workers across the country not working because of the public health emergency."
Under normal circumstances, a no-strings-attached federal grant of $232 million would be a windfall for RTD, which spent an estimated $668 million on operating expenses across bus, rail, paratransit and administrative services last year. But the coronavirus crisis has changed everything, with a desperate need for emergency funds to offset the loss of fare-box and sales-tax revenues, and to keep buses and trains running for essential workers across the agency's 2,400-square-mile service area.
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RTD's board of directors voted unanimously on March 24 to approve a temporary plan reducing bus and rail service to weekend levels until September, though the agency is hopeful that some or all of that service could be restored sooner. Officials have said that they don't anticipate operator layoffs, and will instead use surplus staff to conduct trainings and cover potential call-outs due to illness.
RTD staff, boardmembers and transit advocates fear that the COVID-19 crisis threatens to wreak further financial havoc on an agency that had been struggling to begin with. Late last year, RTD approved $40 million in budget cuts for 2020 due to slackening tax-revenue forecasts, and the impact of the crisis on revenues from the 1 percent sales tax that funds most of its services could be devastating. During a special board meeting this week, agency officials floated the possibility of stopping annual savings for unfinished FasTracks rail lines, essentially abandoning projects like the notoriously delayed B Line extension to Boulder and Longmont, in order to plug more immediate holes in the budget.
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For now, RTD can rely on the CARES Act grants, which it says "can be used for any operations costs associated with COVID-19, including salaries and expenses related to protective equipment and cleaning supplies."
The FTA allocated the grants through its population-based apportionment formulas, with urban areas receiving the vast majority of the funding. RTD's $232 million in grants includes $209 million for the Denver area as well as several smaller grants for Boulder, Longmont and other suburban communities; another $53 million in grants will be allocated to smaller transit agencies in cities including Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Grand Junction.
In a statement celebrating the grants, RTD Interim General Manager Paul Ballard credited the efforts of the American Public Transportation Association and the agency's federal lobbying firm, Squire Patton Boggs, for pushing for transit funding to be included in the federal relief package.
“We appreciate everyone’s hard work," Ballard said. "These funds will help us in a big way as we navigate the COVID-19 crisis.”