First Reimagine RTD telephone town hall meeting features questions about fares, service delivery and staffing challenges

We’re encouraged that our public kickoff of the Reimagine RTD project shows the community is engaged for change – and eager to share information and opinions about the future of transit in the metro Denver region.

This week, we hosted our first in a series of telephone town hall meetings for the two-year Reimagine RTD project, and many of our most passionate riders, taxpayers and local officials listened in on the phone or online. For those who are not yet aware, we’re hosting 15 more of these town halls in the coming weeks, each featuring a different member of our agency’s regionally elected Board of Directors. The next ones are Oct. 7, at 6 p.m. with Director Dr. Claudia Folska, Ph.D., and at 7:30 p.m. with Director Jeff Walker. If you miss these meetings or want to catch up on any others, we make audio recordings available as soon as possible at https://vekeo.com/regional-transportation-district/. You can sign up to attend any of the meetings through this link.

Great questions about what resources RTD has available to meet future needs helped launch Wednesday night’s discussion. It’s a key topic for the public and our agency, as the population of the metro area is expected to grow more than 30 percent over the next 30 years. There will be enormous demand for bus, rail and other transit options to keep the Denver area moving.

One caller wanted to know how much of RTD’s total revenue comes from fares. It’s a crucial point as we consider how to balance the personal financial cost to riders and the cost of running our 2,300-square-mile system. RTD takes in about $1.2 billion a year. Only 20 percent of that comes from the farebox. The majority, about 60 percent, comes from the 1 percent sales tax paid by residents of RTD’s eight-county service area. The remaining 20 percent of funding comes from various federal grants. You can access RTD’s detailed 2019 budget here.

We received questions from our constituents in Boulder, Longmont and other communities in the northern part of our district about finishing all of the projects that are part of the FasTracks program, made possible by a public vote to increase the sales tax in 2004. While we’re proud to have opened six transit corridors in just three years, we know that these riders want to know when we plan to build commuter rail to Boulder and Longmont. We’ve invested $5.6 billion on transit infrastructure under FasTracks, but completing the system is now estimated to cost more than $2 billion. As I said on the call, no one wants to complete FasTracks more than RTD, but we need to identify additional funding to get it done. Brainstorming around that question will be part of the various Reimagine RTD forums for the public and for expert panels.

Transit fares always bring questions and challenges. We know the most recent fare increase made at the beginning of this year cuts into the everyday budgets of some riders. That’s why we have added a new opportunity for some riders to enjoy a discount on their fare. With the launch of the LiVE Program in July, RTD became one of a few transit agencies in the nation to offer an income-based fare discount. If you or anyone you know has a household income that is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, you can enroll in the LiVE Program to get a 40 percent discount on your transit fare. The addition of this discount was a key recommendation of a recent, yearlong pass program study that examined all of our fares and passes. Another recommendation from the study that we implemented in January was to increase the discount for youth – riders between 6 and 19 years old – to 70 percent. (Previously, it was 50 percent.) RTD also offers half-price discount fares to seniors (65 and older), individuals with disabilities and Medicare recipients. We hope that people who qualify for these discounts take advantage of them and spread the word.

A number of callers had questions about other important services we offer, including Access-a-Ride and our microtransit service, FlexRide. Like all RTD services, these will be examined as part of Reimagine RTD, a comprehensive project to reimagine and redesign the mobility of the future. As Reimagine RTD moves forward, we want to hear from riders with disabilities, riders with geographic challenges and community experts who work on these issues every day. We are already studying and employing new software technologies that will allow us to shorten the promised arrival windows for Access-a-Ride, which as listeners pointed out is an important goal for riders with disabilities trying to get to work, class or appointments on time.

Finally, we wanted to use these telephone town halls as a megaphone for our single biggest current challenge, one where we think the public can help. Riders have noticed we’ve had to drop some trips in recent months on both bus and rail. While the percentage of disruptions to our overall service remains very small, we never want to strand any passengers who rely on us. The reality in transportation of all kinds right now – whether here in Colorado or elsewhere – is that no employer can hire and retain enough new operators to meet demand. As we speak, RTD needs about 60 light rail operators and 87 bus operators to deliver our scheduled work.

If you know of anyone interested in a career as an operator, send them our way. RTD has raised wages, altered our scheduling patterns and created recruitment bonuses to help fill positions. Put the pitch out there: We have great jobs with great pay and benefits, so check us out.

On a related note, people often ask whether our ridership is being disrupted by companies like Uber and Lyft. It is possible that they may be having the biggest impact on the pool of potential operators we would look to hire, with drivers choosing the freedom of work through these apps over the steady wages and benefits offered by RTD or other employers.

One final request: As we dive headfirst into Reimagine RTD, please put the word out to your families, friends and neighbors about the upcoming telephone town hall meetings. As we said in our first call, we’ve made a lot of progress – and there’s still a lot to do.