RTD Board approves updated study of Northwest Rail ‘Peak Service’ Plan, backs majority of recommendations from accountability committee

The RTD Board of Directors on Tuesday agreed to study implementation of a “peak service” rail schedule to northwest communities and backed the majority of 43 recommendations forwarded by an independent accountability committee.

Board discussion on the accountability committee recommendations, and RTD staff’s response to those ideas, was light and unanimous (with two abstentions).

Board discussion on the northwest rail study, and its $8 million price tag, was productive. And robust.

On a 12-3 vote, however, Board members sided with the notion that taxpayers in those northern communities have contributed tax dollars to the ongoing build-out of the FasTracks plan approved in 2004, and that RTD is obligated to explore whether limited service on the existing rail corridor will attract enough riders to the concept.

Money to pay for the study comes for an internal FasTracks account that was set aside for just such purposes, argued supporters of the study, and the decision to implement rail service on firmer ground with fresh data. The “Peak Service” idea calls for three trains for the morning commute and three trains for the afternoon.

Board members in the majority suggested that the $8 million investment keeps the conversation moving forward, honors the promise that FasTracks made when it asked for voter support 17 years ago, and puts RTD in a better position for possible collaboration with the backers of Front Range Passenger Rail. The FRPR might be the “moonshot” idea, said one Board member, that could solve the very problem that the possible extension of the B Line (to the northwest) is trying to fix.

The discussion over the accountability committee report and the discussion over funding the northwest study intersected on Recommendation No. 16 from the committee: “RTD should perform a complete and comprehensive analysis of the Northwest Rail project to establish a common set of assumptions (including cost, ridership and timeline), and then engage in a regional discussion about opportunities and alternatives, both near-term and long-term, for the corridor.”

The RTD staff response to this suggestion was “agree.”

The Board concurred.  

“The accountability committee just issued a long diatribe on the northwest rail,” said RTD Director Paul Rosenthal. “I think we need to heed some of the things they had to say. And some of those elected officials and Board members are from all over the metro area, not just the northwest.” 

The accountability committee was created in July 2020 by Gov. Jared Polis along with members of the RTD Board and Rep. Matt Gray and Sen. Faith Winter, then chairs of the Colorado General Assembly’s standing committees responsible for oversight of transportation matters. The accountability committee’s charge was to provide an independent and objective analysis of RTD's operations and to suggest any needed changes to related statutes.

“We did make a promise to the northwest region,” said RTD Board Chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede. “I think it is exciting. We may have some amazing opportunities to collaborate with the Front Range Rail.”

Dissenting votes were cast by RTD Directors Bobby Dishell, Julien Bouquet and Shontel Lewis.

Dishell said the study is pointless. “We’re undertaking a study to answer questions we are already know (the answers to),” he said, with the projected ridership low and the investment expensive. RTD’s projected per-rider subsidy, Dishell added, would be 17 times higher than the existing per-rider subsidy rates.

“Yes, there are political pressures here, but we have a fiduciary duty to the entire region,” he said.

Lewis cited the district’s maintenance backlog as a higher priority than this study. She said other incomplete FasTracks projects also need study and work. And she argued that too much of FasTracks revenue is already spent on debt service.

“I’m not saying no to Boulder, and I’m not saying no to Longmont. I’m saying yes to equity, and I’m saying yes to our long-term success,” Lewis said. “We need to concern ourselves with the needs of the entire district.”

But Directors Erik Davidson, Vince Buzek and others said the study is about engaging the community and providing a common set of numbers that demonstrate the size of the investment needed and the projected ridership if it’s built.

“These arguments about equity are hollow,” Buzek said. “You have economically challenged, transit-dependent people who live all along this line.”

It was Davidson who referenced the “moonshot” possibility of aligning with the Front Range Passenger Rail initiative. He argued that studying the northwest corridor expansion will put RTD in a better strategic position and aligns with RTD’s stated goals of partnering with organizations such as FRPR and the Colorado Department of Transportation.

“Our reputation is at stake here, and if we shortchange these people we are going to rue the day,” Director Bob Broom said.

Accountability committee response

The 43 recommendations from the accountability committee fell into nine general categories. The categories ranged from how to spend federal relief dollars related to COVID-19 to improving reporting metrics and transparency, from improving operator retention to leveraging partnerships.

RTD staff only disagreed with one idea: the suggestion to consolidate all discounted fares as a means to improve the customer experience and improve ridership.

In the printed response, RTD General Manager and CEO Debra A. Johnson noted that the district is currently conducting a systemwide fare study and equity analysis, which includes extensive outreach to community organizations. The 18-month analysis, she said, will address the accountability committee’s concerns.

Board members had a robust discussion at a meeting on August 17 and offered several recommendations, which were incorporated into the final responses.  One idea (Recommendation No. 9) called for creation of “service councils” by region that would advise RTD on local service needs. RTD staff agreed to create a work group to study the suggestion and added that the idea fits with its ongoing outreach through organized listening sessions that exist throughout the district.

“My sincere thanks to you and your team for such a stellar job in pulling this very difficult process together and making it user-friendly, transparent and inclusive,” Board Chair Rivera-Malpiede told Johnson.