A conversation with Vince Buzek, chair of RTD’s 15-member elected Board

This month, the RTD Board of Directors elected Vince Buzek as its chair for the 2022 term. A Chicago native, Buzek grew up relying on public transportation. As a council member for the city and county of Broomfield from 1999 to 2007, Buzek was active in transit issues and participated in the decision for Broomfield to publicly support FasTracks. Buzek was elected to the RTD Board in November 2018 and took office in January 2019.

Buzek represents District J, which includes the cities of Westminster, Northglenn and Federal Heights, portions of western Thornton, and portions of unincorporated Adams and Jefferson counties. In being selected for the Board’s top leadership position, Buzek succeeds Angie Rivera-Malpiede, who served as chair for the past two years.

Q: You are assuming leadership of the RTD Board at a pivotal time for the agency and a precarious time for transit in general. What has prepared you most for this moment?

My first year was relatively normal. The next two years were anything but. However, watching and working with Angie Rivera-Malpiede, I saw how you lead an agency when you have all these additional challenges (of governing a transit agency during a pandemic) on top of the regular challenges. Moving forward, I want to continue to address those types of issues, even if we address them in a different way.

I grew up in Chicago, and the city had a robust transit system. I came from a transit-dependent family. We would get on the “L” to go everywhere. It was safe, reliable, fast, easy to use and relatively inexpensive. I hope to do that here. I want to improve people’s concept of transit.

Q: What are some lessons learned during the pandemic that will inform your vision for the future of RTD?

Buzek: RTD’s fare and equity study is going to be an important part of bringing back ridership. We have provided service for transit-dependent riders throughout the pandemic. But if we want to make our services more accessible to our customers, we need to address the current fare structure.

When (General Manager and CEO) Debra Johnson first came on board with RTD, I told her to leave her RTD badge behind and go out and ride the system. Try purchasing a fare and take some trips around the region to see it from the viewpoint of our customers. We need to listen to our customers and address barriers to using public transit. Keep it inexpensive – simplification is important. The current fare zone concept is too complicated. I did some outreach at Eastlake•124th Station during the Parade of Lights. You have occasional riders, many of whom are trying transit for the first time. People couldn’t figure out the ticket vending machine or the app on the phone. One family might have seniors, adults and children, but they cannot do it all with a single transaction. They have to buy separate passes. It’s probably easy to put that on the lower end of the spectrum (of importance), but if that is a stumbling block, you will have trouble attracting ridership.

Q: What do you see as the top two most important measures of effectiveness for RTD over the next two to five years?

Buzek: Ridership is a big gauge of effectiveness. We need to increase our numbers. Even before the pandemic that was the challenge. That all relates back to ease of use of the system.

Part of what we have changed is how we look at the general management. We are doing surveys and asking the public to gauge how we are doing. We can’t forget that.

We need to continually talk to our customers and listen to the feedback we are getting. The north (metro area) has struggled with that, but since Debra Johnson joined RTD, I get a sense that stakeholders are pleased with her willingness to meet them on their own turf and manage their expectations. Debra is willing to say, “These are the sticking points.” RTD has moved off from saying no to everything.

Q: What are some key issues or concerns that are top of mind right now for your constituents?

Buzek: Our constituents know we are struggling to provide service right now given hiring issues and the pandemic. These things are going to happen. People understand this is not just an RTD problem. But they want to see us create a robust system.

We need to balance needs of transit-dependent customers with promises we made to provide service throughout the entire region. I hear the argument that we need to provide transit to the core, but it doesn’t work if we cannot provide a complete transit system with meaningful connections, including to and from suburban areas.

Q: The N Line is the first commuter rail line that RTD owns and operates. What has changed for RTD since the N Line opened for service in 2020?

Buzek: It was quite a feat for (interim General Manager and CEO) Paul Ballard to open the N Line during a pandemic. He and his team got it open. The fact that we run it ourselves gives us the ability to make adjustments without having to go through the contractor. We have come a long way, and it is a real success story. We have seen performance numbers increasing, and ridership is steadily growing. I give a lot of credit to the team for making things work out. When things work, and work well, we attract riders.

Q: What kinds of opportunities do you see for RTD during your term?

Buzek: One of the first things I did as chair was to reach out to each director individually. I said, pick one goal for this year. That was received positively by my colleagues. There are a lot of smart people with interesting ideas, and I wanted to hear from them.

RTD’s Board is not unlike other elected boards. It is like a big puzzle with 15 pieces. My plan is to listen to various parts, then bring it back to the whole picture. I don’t see a lot of parochial interests taking precedence over the big picture.

Q: Will increases in gas prices or inflation help drive people back to transit?

Buzek: It would be great if commuters think, “Hey, transit is a better option.” RTD should be the sustainability choice. We are the green option. If you have 60 to 70 people on a sustainable bus, that means you are taking 60 to 70 drivers off the road. I want one of the first choices to be, “Let’s take RTD!” But we need to make it easy, simplify the fares and provide the service.