RTD planners have much to consider if temporary service cuts are considered

The only way to survive and thrive as a service planner at the Regional Transportation District is to acquire a thick skin and an unflappable demeanor. 

Everyone who uses public transit wants more frequent service, for longer hours of the day, closer to their daily routines. And they certainly don’t want cuts. So the RTD managers who spend their day mapping out routes, calculating costs and proposing changes know they have to make their numbers add up and make sense before they turn them over to the public and to the RTD Board of Directors for decisions.

“We need to be objective in the review of information we receive,” said Jeff Becker, RTD senior manager of service development. 

“When you have finite resources, you have to build a rationale to allocate it correctly,” added Jessie Carter, manager of service planning and scheduling. 

This time around for RTD and the public, the finite resources are people. RTD has a severe operator shortage for buses and light rail, and is asking the public to voice their opinions about temporary service cuts to the schedule in order to relieve the burden on existing operators and ease the recruitment of new staff. For some time, RTD has had to mandate six-day work weeks for most operators to fill gaps, and working conditions are a major complaint of recruits and operators who leave the system.

There is no specific proposal for the service cuts. Last week, RTD launched a “Your Voice Matters” listening campaign to solicit public opinion on whether service cuts are an acceptable temporary solution to the operator shortage. 

But there are some clear guidelines and roadblocks ahead for planners, that may be useful for the public to consider when giving RTD advice about priorities in the route and schedule system. It’s never as simple as, “This route at this time gets few riders and loses too much money.” That’s important, but it’s just a start. 

Other considerations include: 

  • RTD light rail and commuter rail lines were funded in part by major federal transit grants, and those funding applications came with very specific promises about frequency of service, RTD officials noted. The agency can’t simply say, for example, a light rail line will be trimmed late on Sunday night, without a federal waiver.
  • Equal transit access for residents with disabilities is mandated by federal laws. One basic tenet is that if RTD offers a route in one geographic area, it must also offer services like Access-a-Ride in that same footprint. Services can be cut in hard times, but equitable access is always a key question.
  • The public is sometimes more open to trimming services shown to be duplicative. For example, if RTD is running a “limited” or express bus service on the same popular route as it runs a frequent-stop local bus, one or the other might be proposed for cuts to save operator needs. Alternatively, buses or trains that run similar routes in close parallel might also face a trim.
  • RTD has tools to limit the impact from canceled routes. For example, a bus route canceled because of extremely low ridership can instead offer FlexRide service to the few regular customers – FlexRide being a shared ride-on-demand, small-bus service that requires a little more planning on the part of the rider. 

Any proposals must be mindful of all the tradeoffs involved, Carter noted.

“You can’t just say, ‘Do this for me,’ because someone else will say that violates someone else’s access,” he said. “We have a narrow path to stay on when we consider these things.”

Any move toward a temporary service cut in 2020 will go through multiple rounds of public input and Board consideration, the planners said. First, the public can make general comments for the Your Voice Matters campaign, which includes in-person surveys at various bus and rail stations, and an online survey, among other outreach tools. If the staff does develop a list of proposed cuts, the Board would consider them, and another round of public hearings would launch. 

“The proposals are just that…proposals. We’re going to ask for public opinion,” Carter said.