For January service change proposal, focus is on shifting resources to heavily traveled routes
Three times a year, RTD sends its complex system of transit routes and schedule frequency to planners for a tune-up.
In April, when ridership dropped significantly due to stay-at-home orders enacted to address the spread of the coronavirus, RTD implemented a pandemic service plan, reducing service by about 40%. This fall, as ridership remains at about 45% of pre-COVID levels, the RTD Board of Directors will vote on adjustments to that pandemic service plan.
The main impact of the proposed changes, scheduled to go into effect Jan. 10 once approved, is to add bus frequency on RTD routes that have remained busy and need more scheduled vehicles to maintain social distancing required by health department and agency rules. This will mean adding service to routes like the 16 on West Colfax Avenue and the 31 on Federal Boulevard, which carry a high volume of essential workers and people without alternate transportation who have remained frequent riders throughout the pandemic.
Two other primary changes will suspend some regional/commuter routes that are seeing single-digit number of passengers on their service from suburbs to employment centers. With so many office workers staying remote, demand for routes from Evergreen to Civic Center, for example, has fallen sharply. Another route scheduled for suspension, Golden to Boulder, has seen a similar drop off in the number of passengers it carries.
Light rail routes will also be consolidated to account for lower ridership. For example, the E and F lines to the southeast would be consolidated and retain the E Line’s route from RidgeGate Parkway Station to Union Station.
Frequency would be reduced on the light rail system as well, accounting for significant drops in ridership from COVID-19 altered commuting patterns.
“This is not a normal service change, and it’s not one we would consider a permanent one,” said Jessie Carter, RTD’s manager of service planning and scheduling, who noted that the RTD Board hopes to restore service as ridership increases and resources allow.
“Our focus is to redistribute service from routes that are underperforming to ones that have capacity challenges,” Carter said.
RTD currently dispatches extra buses when vehicles reach COVID-19 capacity on busy corridors like Broadway, Colfax and Federal. Currently, RTD is able to provide these additional services due to the support of the CARES Act funding, but the funds will be expended by the end of the year. Without the additional funding, RTD will need to use its current resources to provide a higher-level capacity on our system. This means RTD will need to rebalance service to continue to keep up with the demands of its routes with the highest ridership.
The choices come down to sending a regional bus that may pick up only four passengers, or a Colfax or Federal bus that will quickly fill to capacity limits of 15 people for a standard bus or 20 for a larger vehicle.
Priorities the planners look at are no secret. RTD reduced services about 40% near the beginning of the pandemic to reflect diminished ridership. Since then, weekday local bus ridership has settled in at 45% of pre-pandemic levels, while ridership on regional routes, the Flatiron Flyer and light rail now runs at 15%-25% of levels from the beginning of the year. Overall, these trends mean that RTD is now carrying around 55%-60% fewer customers.
Some riders remain on the regional routes facing cuts. RTD staff are considering how to provide alternate service for those commuters through vanpools, vouchers for rideshare services like Uber or Lyft, or other methods.
“Social distancing on mass transit is a challenge to the industry model,” Carter said. “It’s hard to operate under normal industry assumptions. You want full capacity, but with social distancing, it’s less than ideal.”
Bottom line, RTD officials say: With severe budget pressures, resources have to be sent where higher numbers of riders are waiting.
RTD is beginning the input process for proposed changes so there is still time for the public to weigh in on the January service change proposal. The RTD Board will take a final vote on the changes on Oct. 27. Public comments can be submitted until the end of the day on Oct. 14, at [email protected]. Four virtual meetings open to the public are scheduled through October, with full details about how to participate – and a complete list of proposed changes – on this webpage.