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To Bring Back Denver Riders, Make Transit Cheap or Free

The Regional Transportation District’s Accountability Committee issued a report urging the transit agency to attract riders before they establish post-pandemic routines of commuting to work by car, highlighting poor ridership as a top concern.

(TNS) — Commuters returning to their workplaces as the pandemic eases are clogging Denver-area highways, but they aren't yet boarding buses and trains in droves.

That emerging dynamic has prompted an outside review panel to call for the Regional Transportation District to act boldly: Use some of its federal relief money to slash regular fares temporarily and streamline its monthly passes to make them easier to get.

The plea underscores that RTD is in a fight to lure riders back against changing work patterns, its own budget constraints and, most of all, time. While RTD leaders point to gradual ridership growth this year as an encouraging sign, the most recent monthly ridership report from May shows 58 percent fewer riders boarded its buses, trains and other services during that month than in May 2019.

The new recommendations, issued in a report last week, are the product of political pressure. A year ago, Gov. Jared Polis and state lawmakers won the RTD board's agreement to create a reform-minded "accountability committee." The arrangement requires RTD's board to respond formally to each suggestion by late August.

"As pandemic restrictions ease and more employees return to the workplace, there is an urgent, time-limited opportunity to attract them to commute via transit before their post-pandemic behavior is locked into driving to work in a single-occupant vehicle instead," the RTD Accountability Committee says in its final report.

The committee's charge was to suggest improvements to the agency's operations and ways to overcome its long-term financial challenges, but it pegged the pandemic plunge in ridership as a top concern.

RTD leaders' initial response to the fare-cut recommendation has been tepid, especially since the agency recently launched an 18-month study of its fare structure that could result in permanent changes — just not anytime soon.

"I think everything is worth considering," RTD board chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede said, but she would prefer careful analysis first. "The reality is that our fare structure is so complex that we really need to stop and take a breath here and figure out, 'What is the best structure and what is the best methodology to get there?' "

Transit advocates told The Denver Post there's a lot to like in the idea of slashing fares, even if it's unlikely to be an easy remedy.

"Usually people only make a change in how they get places — what mode of transportation they're using — when a major life event happens," said Jamie Perkins, a former program manager at the now-defunct Transit Alliance in Denver.

But as the pandemic fades, she said, "everybody is creating new habits," and fare-sweeteners could help steer them back to RTD.

Just as important, she said, is providing reliable service. RTD has reversed some of its pandemic service cuts this year, and on Tuesday, its board approved a new batch of service restorations planned for September, including several regional bus routes that had been fully suspended. A spokeswoman said service will reach 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels once those take effect.

RTD should embrace a test of reduced fares or free passes — even if only for certain groups or a part of its system — because it could reveal fresh lessons, said Danny Katz, director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group. He is on the advisory board for an initiative called Reimagine RTD that is plotting ways to adapt to future transportation needs.

"Traffic is up, so there's pressure for all of us to want to find a better way to get around," Katz said. "And you know, we have dirty air right now — so there's a public interest, a public health need, for RTD to step up and test out some affordability pieces while they're doing a longer-term (fare) study."

RTD's Call on Fare Cuts

So how would temporary fare cuts work? The review committee suggests RTD create a six-month pilot program for cheaper fares, but it doesn't identify specifics or a cost. It says the pilot could include free fares for riders 65 and older, disabled people, low-income customers and other groups that now qualify for discounts — giving a break to some loyal riders who never had the option of working from home.

The report says RTD could underwrite a pilot using some of the $773 million it anticipates receiving from federal pandemic relief packages. But since that money has offset substantial budget shortfalls, agency leaders are hesitant to forgo more income. In May, RTD pocketed $6.2 million from fares amid still-lagging ridership, falling 17 percent short of the revenue it had forecast in the budget.

Still, even RTD's new top official, CEO and general manager Debra Johnson, has agreed with criticisms that its fares are difficult to understand and too costly, starting with a $3 base local fare that's among the highest in the U.S. The regional one-way fare is $5.25, while a trip on the A-Line train to Denver International Airport costs $10.50.

RTD spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas said any fare-cut proposal would require tough budget trade-offs. It's largely committed the federal aid to shoring up its budget and averting layoffs for more than 200 front-line employees.

Polis recently signed legislation that removed a farebox ratio requirement for RTD, giving it more leeway to reduce prices. The Accountability Committee had urged that change, and co-chair Crystal Murillo, an Aurora City Council member, said the flexibility could help reestablish the consistent base of riders needed for the RTD's long-term health.

"I'm hoping that they will put some serious thought behind its feasibility," she said of the fare-cutting recommendation.

Beyond fares, the Accountability Committee's other suggestions to RTD take a wider view: boosting retention of RTD's operators, improving financial transparency, balancing debt obligations while completing several unfunded FasTracks lines, and giving communities a voice in route and service decisions.

RTD's ridership remains at less than half of 2019 levels — and significantly lags other U.S. transit agencies, according to ridership estimates produced by the Transit phone app and the American Public Transportation Association. They have analyzed app usage in dozens of U.S. cities each week to model demand and compare it to each agency's past ridership data.

By that measure, which differs slightly from actual figures, RTD was 62 percent below normal in mid-July; the national average was a 47 percent deficit, while agencies serving urban areas of more than 2 million residents were down an average of 48 percent.

Most RTD Riders Are Commuters

Commuters' future behavior is perhaps the biggest X-factor for RTD. In a 2019 customers satisfaction survey cited by the agency, 71 percent of regular weekday riders said they used RTD to get to and from work.

So far, it's unclear how soon — or if — past patterns will return fully.

The Downtown Denver Partnership says its tracking of activity downtown, based on outside firms' analysis of phone location movements and other sources, is modestly outpacing projections as more events draw people to the area, including this month's Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

But downtown offices are early in their shift back to in-person work. Roughly 25,000 employees are working full-time downtown compared to 110,000 prior to the pandemic, according to the DDP's most recent biweekly report. The popularity of hybrid work schedules is evident in citywide tracking of Google location data that shows that as many as 60 percent of workers are going in to work some days of the week, most often midweek.

With a blurry view of the future, RTD's Tonilas said the best the agency can do is restore service to keep up with rising demand and encourage people to ride its buses and trains. Pandemic safety remains a concern for some, and a federal mask mandate is still in effect for public transportation.

Ridership has recovered steadily from the lowest lows last year, when RTD's daily numbers plunged more than 70 percent amid stay-at-home orders for all but essential workers. The numbers began creeping up last summer and generally have continued to improve, including by about 7 percent since January, Tonilas said.

The days before the All-Star Game were a bright spot. Tonilas said ridership on buses and trains was up notably, peaking at 36 percent higher than other recent Mondays on July 12, when the Home Run Derby drew fans to LoDo.

While such signs are encouraging, transit advocates say too much is at stake for RTD to take a wait-and-see stance.

"If we don't have a good transit and bus system, we're not going to be able to solve those challenges — like ozone pollution, like climate change, like safety, like affordability," Katz said. "Our lives are completely wrapped up in transportation and how we get from Point A to Point B. Right now we don't have very good options, and there's a lot of negative impacts because of that."

(c)2021 The Denver Post. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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