RTD is shopping three fare proposals to transit users in the Denver area to determine just how deep they're willing to dig into their pockets to ride on an RTD bus or train. And the transit agency is hosting a series of open houses where riders can elaborate on their answers.
The research was inspired by RTD's yearlong pass-program study that concluded in March and included a proposal for a low-income fare program that would offer residents earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty line a 40 percent discount on passes. If RTD springs for those discounted low-income passes, the agency says it needs to make up for the projected lost revenue by raising its fares.
"Fares are designed to offset our operating costs, so rail and bus," says Heather McKillop, the transit agency's CFO. "We want to get input tonight and throughout these open houses on how they feel about those trade-offs. Are they willing to pay a little more to have a low-income program and youth program? Are they saying, 'No, I don't want to pay anymore, and I don't think it's worth giving those discounts'? That's what we're trying to gauge across our region."
The transit agency's first stop on its listening tour was July 18 in Englewood. A couple dozen people floated through the open house, peering at posterboards spread around the room and chatting up RTD officials. After they completed their rounds, attendees wrote down their comments and dropped them into a suggestion box. Based on public sentiment — measured through in-person conversations and those suggestions — a final recommendation will be made to the RTD board of directors by September.
The fifteen-member elected board is expected to make its decision on fare increases sometime this fall; the board reviews fares every three years.
"We're going to aggregate all the comments, look for specific themes, and see if they influence our final proposal to the board," McKillop says. "Are more people saying, 'I like the trade-off but can you not do it at three bucks? Is there anything else you can do?' ... We want people to kind of express how they're feeling about it now because we can do something about it now."
And what are the three proposals?
The first option is that fares stay the same. A 50 percent youth discount will be given to children ages thirteen through nineteen, and RTD will offer a three-hour transfer pass in place of its one-way pass. Fare adjustments would also be made to the employer-sponsored EcoPass, CollegePass and Neighborhood EcoPass programs based on use. But under this plan, RTD would remain far below its revenue targets, which could mean more cuts in service. Next month, RTD will already cut service back on the 16th Street Mall shuttle and along a dozen or so other bus routes.
Option two would raise fares — $2.90 for a three-hour local pass, $5 for a regional pass and $10 for an airport pass — while increasing the youth discount to 70 percent; it would get RTD slightly above its revenue targets by 2021. (The three-hour transfer and other pass-program adjustments are also included.)
The only option to offer the discounted low-income fair is option three, in which fares would be raised to their highest proposed point: $3 for a local pass, $5.25 for a regional pass and $10.50 for an airport pass. (The other proposed changes in the previous two options remain.) For comparison, current base fares are $2.60, $4.50 and $9, respectively. RTD says it will not do income verification in-house, but is working with the state to come up with a solution in case the low-income fare program is approved.
Although it had been discussed in the yearlong pass-program study, under this option, children twelve and under would not ride for free.
While some critics of RTD have said that the agency is lowballing a potential increase in low-income riders that could further offset the cost of the program without the need for huge fare hikes, RTD has stood by its transit modeling that shows the program would result in a net revenue loss of $3.4 million to $8.5 million, depending on the type of pass — from three-hour passes only to day or monthly passes purchased on-board or at vending machines.
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"The assumption is that all of a sudden people will have new places to go just because the fare is cheaper. The reality is, that's not the truth," says Michael Washington, transit equity manager at RTD. "Transit is generally inelastic.The majority of people who use it need it, so when you have that situation, you're not going to see huge fluctuations based on the price
Englewood resident Miriam Holzmann, a frequent RTD user, says that although she would pay a fare increase to help other riders, she'd prefer to see the low-income program implemented without it. Since she purchases a monthly RTD pass and would only see a $15 increase, which she can afford, Holzmann says she's willing to chip in to help others and support RTD.
"The potential increases are reasonable, I think, and they're looking into and out for providing for lower-income riders. It's a great thing," Holzmann says. "I like the idea of not changing anything, but I like that they're looking out for low-income riders. ... Maybe they can create a fourth possibility, since they're going to be putting all of this together anyway."
Six more open houses are scheduled today through July 26. Find more information on the meeting dates on RTD's fare-review page, where you can also fill out an online suggestion form.