RTD Board gives go-ahead for public input on service reduction plan

At a study session Thursday night, RTD staff presented the Board of Directors with a proposal to help ease the agency’s severe operator shortage that would eliminate six bus routes and reduce 19 others, reduce frequency or days of service on three light rail lines, and end special services to Broncos, CU Buffs and Rockies games. 

Some of the reductions would be temporary, but others may prove permanent depending on how all routes perform, staff officials told the Board. 

Planners went beyond federal equity requirements to grandfather in existing disabled ridership on paratransit services where routes would be eliminated. While RTD would not take on new Access-a-Ride patrons in those areas, it would continue to serve current riders with disabilities as long as they need the service and stayed in their current residences. 

The changes discussed this week would not take effect until May. Between now and then, RTD will seek extensive public comment on the proposal, alongside public comment for any other changes to be introduced during the May service change. Staff will present the Board with a complete proposal for that time frame at its Jan. 14 meeting, and a final vote is to occur in March.

The proposal is meant to ease the number of bus and train trips canceled on short notice because RTD has been running for years without all of the operators the agency needs to fulfill its scheduled service. While RTD is providing 99 percent of bus trips and 96 percent of train trips, there have been days it had to cancel up to 100 light rail trips in recent months. 

Part of the problem is a powerful metro-area economy that gives potential operators choices of other jobs. Another problem is self-perpetuating, with the shortage prompting mandated six-day work weeks for 69 percent of bus operators and 42 percent of rail operators, which hurts recruiting, retention and morale. 

“It’s affecting the quality of life for our employees, customer confidence, upholding our core values of safety and reliability, and our credibility, which we take very seriously,” said Chief Operating Officer Michael Ford, in presenting the proposed changes to the board. 

If the proposal is approved, the bus routes that would be eliminated in May would be the 16L, 55, 99L, 157, 236 and the 403, most of which serve the suburbs. More routes would be shortened. The staff presentation said RTD has watched performance on these routes for a long time and found them to be consistently underperforming in community demand and farebox revenue, or were duplicative service. 

On light rail, a staff request to reduce service on the recently opened E, F and R Extension to Lone Tree was not approved by the Federal Transit Agency, which provided construction funds for the project and can regulate service levels. Instead, RTD staff recommend reducing the frequency of the R Line along I-225 from four trains an hour to two, as well as eliminating weekend service on the D Line. C Line rail service on weekends would be increased because of high demand in the Central Platte Valley. 

The proposal is painstaking in focusing on routes that have nearby alternatives remaining, RTD staff said. Eliminating the special sports rides would free up 100 operators to run regular routes at other times of the week. 

The proposed changes will not completely eliminate trip cancellations or the need for mandating, but they are hoped to improve customer reliability, uphold RTD’s core value of safety and reduce the amount of mandating required so that working overtime is a choice. 

Outreach will include at least 15 public meetings, one in each RTD district, as well as other efforts. 

“We will do a Herculean job of communicating,” Ford said. 

Board members said they would seek as much public input as possible. They did not immediately raise major objections to the proposal, and they thanked staff for what they called meticulous work on the plan. 

RTD Board Chair Doug Tisdale said serious consideration of the changes is priority given recent public reaction to RTD performance. While nearly all RTD trips are carried out on a percentage basis, Tisdale said, “unfortunately, if you’re in the one percent that’s missed, that’s all you care about, and we understand that.” 

A couple of directors questioned whether eliminating the popular sports rides is the best strategy at a time when public image is important for RTD’s success. These services may be some taxpayers’ only contact with RTD services, they said. 

Director Vince Buzek said he remained skeptical about the overall strategy behind the proposal and whether it would solve the problem of recruiting and retaining enough operators. 

“A transit agency should provide transit,” Buzek said. “Dramatic service cuts as a way to address a problem gets you away from that philosophy and the mission.”