Much thought given to decision to suspend service into and out of downtown Denver during protests

A family of four taking the train to Union Station, only to be trapped there by apparent explosions, drifting tear gas and fast-moving protests.

A Denver transit supervisor’s tires slashed while helping to move a bus surrounded by crowds.

Video of transit buses catching on fire during protests in other cities, whether caught in crossfire or set ablaze by those angry at institutional symbols.

These were some of the factors in play as RTD decided in recent days to suspend service to and from the concentrated downtown Denver area, as protests and sweep actions by police create an unpredictable, rapidly changing safety environment for all.

RTD riders and some local leaders understandably have voiced concerns about RTD’s decision, which the agency has addressed daily as more protests are planned. RTD Customer Care received a significant increase in inbound volume from riders via all channels: phone, social media and email.

Some people wanted to know if RTD had an agenda to suppress the protests by reducing the number of protests. To that, RTD officials say an emphatic “no.” All decisions were made with the safety of employees and riders as the number one priority.

“Some of us who are transit dependent wanted to support the protest,” one person wrote to RTD on social media.

Others supported the service suspensions. “Guess all these people wanting service don't care about passenger safety as well (as) the driver. I think it's the right call. Stay safe,” wrote one.

RTD officials said they understand very well that people rely on trains and buses for work and essential services, and that some protesters themselves counted on using RTD.

After detailed consideration and discussion among senior leadership, with key operations personnel, and in close consultation with Denver Police and city officials, RTD suspended downtown service for the safety of passengers, RTD employees, protesters and security personnel.

“We stand for the rights and dignity of all people. We stand with our front-line employees and riders and for the calls that justice be served. We also, at our core, stand for the safety and security of our employees and our riders,” said Pauletta Tonilas, RTD’s assistant general manager of communications. “These are difficult decisions and we’re sorry for the inconvenience this causes our riders, but we don’t want to take the chance of our drivers and riders getting stuck downtown or being put in harm’s way because of those who take actions beyond peaceful protests.”

The timing of the initial suspension made things difficult for all, RTD officials acknowledged. The announcement first came early Friday morning, while some downtown employees were still making the commute or planning their day.

RTD had at first planned to carry out Friday morning service downtown, but when that day’s protest was suddenly moved from noon to 7 p.m., security officials worried they would leave downtown commuters stranded in the evening.

Thursday night was the eventful evening for the family who came to Union Station on the train, Grado said. When small explosions were heard outside and the scene became chaotic, RTD security helped the family into shelter, and then got them a ride home in a security car.

Denver Police did not order RTD to stop service, but were in full agreement on the decision, Grado said. “It helped them focus on what they needed to, and not rescuing people off buses,” as has happened in other cities, he noted.

For both commuters and protesters who still want or need to get downtown, RTD service is available close by. Trains and buses still approach downtown as far as Auraria West on the south and west side, the Coors Field area to the northwest, and along Colfax and Speer Boulevard to the east and southeast.

Tonight’s crowds may be the biggest yet, Grado said, after conferring with police and city officials. Making it harder for RTD is that the timing and the locations of intense activity have been highly unpredictable, with peaceful protests morphing into vandalism later in the day, and crowds roving from East Colfax to Civic Center and on to the justice center.

RTD leaders and operations staff, in consultation with police and other safety authorities, considered resuming service to downtown Denver for Monday morning. Again, though, commuters in other cities have been angry and felt stranded in downtowns when evening service was disrupted by spontaneous or moving protests.

Riders needing to use transit to travel to or from downtown should closely monitor RTD’s numerous available information sources, including the agency’s website, rider alerts and Twitter feed, for specific route detour information and updates as they develop.