A Candid Conversation with Dave Genova
You’re leaving at a time of some considerable public turmoil for RTD. Can you remember another time during your career here when there was this much controversy, and what was it about?
First off, I want to be clear about where the agency is today. Financially, it’s a strong agency. We’ve had to adjust our budget down for 2020 just like every other agency, (and) state and local governments, because sales tax growth rates are decreasing. Financially, the organization is very sound and solid. We have a bright, bright future because I believe public transportation is the solution to a lot of the challenges we face in the transportation realm, especially capacity. There’s no other option out there that can move the number of people we can. We have some challenges, though – our biggest challenge, of course, is our operator shortage. We’re not unlike any other organization that is having trouble hiring the personnel to carry out its mission.
The agency is not in crisis. I’ve heard that word used by board members, media, stakeholders. We’re delivering right around 99.6 percent of our scheduled bus service and a little over 96 percent of light rail. So while we are missing some trips because of operator shortages, we are working through that, and I don’t think any of these challenges can’t be overcome.
Let’s talk about another time – a couple of times – when the agency was challenged. The first was right after FasTracks was approved in 2004, and the other was the major economic downturn in 2007 and 2008. We hit the worst perfect storm in terms of the economy, with revenues rapidly decreasing because of a significant decrease in sales tax revenue and, at the same time, the cost of construction going way up. This gave us a significant gap in the FasTracks program. So in 2008, 2009, we didn’t know how we were going to deliver any of FasTracks, and here we sit today with 75 percent of FasTracks delivered, even though we estimate we lost more than a billion dollars of revenue from the downturn. We estimate we could build at least three of the four remaining projects with that billion dollars.
And another time, in 2010 and 2011, there were more economic ramifications from the Great Recession. We made a pretty significant service reduction, around 8 or 9 percent, in 2011due to finances. But, since then, we’ve added back 600,000 hours of service. The service reduction we’re looking at today is strictly driven by trying to save headcount so we can stabilize workforce; it’s not due to financial reasons. And the reduction we’re looking at today is about 4 percent.
What is the accomplishment you had a part in that you will remember most from your RTD time?
It’s multiple accomplishments wrapped up into one, but it’s opening four transit corridors in 14 months. Tack onto that a little bit, we did six transit corridors in three years – two of those within three weeks of each other. The expansion we accomplished in a very short period of time is unprecedented in the transit industry. We have the team to deliver those capital projects.
What is the unsolved challenge you will remember most?
The biggest unsolved challenge we have is the four unfunded FasTracks corridors, and for a variety of reasons. I think all of the deep-seated negative emotions about RTD are rooted in those four unfinished projects. For people who are upset about those corridors and stakeholders who are in those corridors, they have every right to be. The fact of the matter is we don’t have the money to complete those right now. The real downside beyond not having them operating is that it’s a cloud that won’t go away, and I believe it drives all the other negative emotion about RTD, and the other things just pile on.
If you could sit down with all those leaders, and I know you have been doing that all along, who would you tell them to be mad at?
First of all, if you want to be mad at RTD, be mad at RTD. Why not? That’s fine. But what I would talk about is how do we advance. Let’s not get hung up in we didn’t get this or that done, so we’re going to shun RTD when we talk about additional transportation funding. Let’s get beyond the punitive attitude toward RTD, and let’s move forward in a collaborative way to deliver the transportation we know everyone needs in the region. We know it’s the No. 1 or No. 2 issue for most folks in the state.
People realize they want something new in transportation. That’s one of the reasons behind the Reimagine RTD campaign we launched. We need to figure out what is next, not just for RTD, but what is the regional mobility plan of the future.
Has there been a fundamental change in the way people travel around cities in the past 20 years? What are those changes?
Absolutely there’s been change. How people interact with transportation – it’s all done on the smartphone. They are planning their trips on the smartphone, looking at real-time information on the smartphone, they’re buying their fare on the smartphone, they’re combining trips on the smartphone. Everything happens through a technology interface, and there are different kinds of mobility right now in addition to the traditional services we’ve offered. With FlexRide, for example, we’ve been doing on-demand transportation for decades. We used to call it Call-n-Ride, but it looked quite different.
Today, on demand is within minutes and, again, all done on the smartphone. Will technology be a big impact? Autonomous vehicles, electrification of rubber-tire fleets – they are costly, we don’t know yet. You’ll pay more for an electric bus than a diesel bus. We pay more per mile for electricity for fuel than diesel fuel right now, and you add in electric infrastructure you need for charging. And what keeps me awake at night about the drive toward electrification is the capability and the resiliency of the electric utility network. We have 36 electric buses, and even a year ago that was the biggest electric fleet in the nation. We lost power at that division one night, which caused all kinds of havoc. Imagine if you have an entire bus division, 250 buses, on electric power – you can’t build backup generation for that. Our challenge is, what are these mobility options that are going to be sustainable? Everybody knows the transportation network companies lose lots of money, billions of dollars every year – Uber and Lyft and others. Our responsibility to taxpayers and stakeholders is that we need to be reliable and safe, and how do we identify those new technologies that are going to be fiscally sustainable and reliable?
Can any transit agency that has to plan in 25-year windows keep up with the way peoples’ lives and habits change in the current era?
I think we can if we’re smart about how we do it. The No. 1 biggest challenge that all transit agencies and state DOT departments face is transportation funding. There’s simply not enough funding to operate all the services that there is a need and demand for, and to keep those services reliably and fiscally sustainable over time. There’s a need for 90 billion dollars in U.S. transit agencies just for the state of good repair backlog; we’re already way in the hole. If we don’t do fiscal sustainability well, and we don’t do state of good repair well, we won’t be doing anything. That’s our starting point. And then how do we overlay new mobility options over that, and what are the things others should be doing, the private sector. We don’t have to operate all those services. We want to identify those gaps, and fill in those gaps with whatever service makes sense.
Autonomous vehicles are a great example. When people first started talking about them, this was going to be THE solution to transportation, the environment, they’ll be electric, it will happen next week. But you’re actually adding to congestion with an individual vehicle: It’s going to take you to work, then go home, then come back to pick you up, make deliveries. It has impact on parking and other things as well. So we need to think about all the policy around transit.
Do you think transit agencies should try radical change, such as eliminating fares altogether, or paying for Uber/Lyft vouchers on some routes, or other big ideas?
Vouchers can be a great application if it can be worked out. I’ve seen pilots come and go on those. Are they fiscally sustainable? I encourage our team to look at any innovative idea we possibly can. Let’s talk about fares for a moment. Are we pushing the limits of affordability? It’s so incredibly complex; it’s not just money. There are so many Title VI issues, and we don’t want to create inequity for any one group. On long trips versus short trips – where’s the equity if I’m riding three blocks on Colfax versus taking the Flatiron Flyer all the way from Boulder to Union Station. And then there’s the “backfill.” If we went completely fare free, that’s 10 percent of our overall revenue, $158 million. To go free, we need to find that revenue source. Other cities are experimenting with this, but look at their size. Let’s take Kansas City, for example. For them to go free, the cost is only $8 million, that’s all they get in fare revenue. But if I was staying here, I’d be pushing hard to flatten our fare. There’s a huge temptation to go free – and there are a lot of unintended consequences. I’ll just talk about one of them: people taking pride in ownership. How do they treat the equipment; will the system get trashed? And it’s true that revenue collection is a cost. How much money do we save by ending that? And how do you police a system that’s free? Look at some of our issues we have right now around homeless camping. Free transit would be a real, real challenge.
Are metro area residents paying a fair share of taxes for their public transit?
People think they’re paying a lot and not getting a lot in return. We pay a lot of different taxes. Do we get a benefit from every tax we pay at the federal, state or local level? In Colorado, I think there are some innovative things we could do where people would be willing to pay more. If the system were free, would they be willing to pay more in sales tax? That’s a huge opportunity for Reimagine RTD – we can show what we can do with current resources, and show what we could do with unconstrained resources, what is the true need and what is the true demand.
By the way, it doesn’t have to be sales tax. There are other mechanisms available. For example, we will have invested $5.6 billion in FasTracks to date once the N Line opens. Along comes the transit oriented development. A large percentage of new housing development and new commercial development now happens within a half mile of transit stations. RTD comes in first, we put in the money, property taxes go up, and yet we don’t get any value capture out of that as time goes on. That’s something I truly want to look at.
Does anyone love their city’s transit agency?
Let me give you an example. I was on vacation not too long ago, sitting at a table at dinner with people we didn’t know. There was a couple from Cleveland. The gentleman said his city’s transit system isn’t really much of anything…very derogatory toward the system in Cleveland. It turns out he didn’t take the system or know anything about it, but his perception wasn’t good. That’s pretty common. But when you ask the users, you get a completely different story, as opposed to those who talk about it and don’t use it. Is transit perfect? No. Can any organization meet all the needs and demands? Probably not; I don’t know of any. I think that transit gets picked on nationally, and I don’t think it’s unusual.
What do you tell employees when they feel like the public will never appreciate or respect them?
What I keep reminding employees of is what we do every day. I reinforce that I think we’re the best transit agency in the country – and we have the best team. How can I back that up? Realizing a FasTracks investment of $5.6 billion dollars. How did we redevelop Union Station? How did we do the nation’s first and largest public private partnership in transit? How do we deliver 512 million passenger trips in five years? I remind them of the things we do every day, and I don’t pull punches. I do talk about the challenges. We could do a better job telling our story. And by the way, we’ve had challenges before, and we’ll get through these. Not only are we doing what we’re doing, we’re doing a lot of new and innovative things along the way. There’s hope.
Do good people want your job?
Denver has an incredible reputation in the transit industry. We are a big draw for talent across the whole organization. I think we continue to attract very bright people, and this will be a competitive national recruitment.
Now that you’re not in public transit, at least for the moment, how will you personally get around?
One of our benefits is that when you’re an RTD employee, your employee ID is a transit pass, and it’s the same when you’re a retiree who’s put in a certain amount of time. I’ll get around by a combination of different modes: transit, cycling, my own car, Lyft, Uber. Probably not the electric scooters. The University of Colorado A Line to the airport, with its great seats and the incredible view of the mountains and Denver – maybe I’ll just do that for fun.