RTD will collaborate with independent accountability committee

The RTD Board of Directors, Gov. Jared Polis and state legislators on Wednesday announced an agreement to appoint an 11-member accountability committee to review and recommend changes to the transit agency’s operations and planning by next year.

Polis will appoint five members to the committee and the legislature will appoint six, drawing from a designated list of expertise including finance, transit planning, equity in services and local government. The committee will begin meeting in July and issue a final report a year from then, with RTD required to either implement the recommendations or explain publicly why it chose not to.

Transit is “too important to our area to write off or sweep under the rug,” Polis said, in a video conference announcing the committee. “This has to be successful.”

Though Polis mentioned the lingering frustration of north and northwest suburban taxpayers in seeing a FasTracks train line delayed for decades, he said leaders need to do more than complain and that RTD was cooperating in the effort.

State Sen. Faith Winter echoed the need for a strong transit agency to match metro growth and provide equitable services to all, adding that mass transportation must be a part of solving looming pollution problems in Denver and around the world.

“We know we cannot meet our climate goals without a strong transit agency,” Winter said.

RTD needs more regional support and understanding than ever, given recent budget challenges, operational gaps and the overhaul required by COVID-19 pandemic fallout, said RTD Board Chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede.

“The RTD Board is looking forward to listening to what they have to say,” Rivera-Malpiede said.

There was some effort in the 2020 legislature to pass a bill requiring more formalized state oversight of RTD, which is currently governed by a 15-member, regionally elected board. That effort met some resistance and then was tabled, along with many measures unrelated to RTD, when the legislature adjourned for much of the early pandemic response.

The accountability committee will include two non-voting members from the RTD Board, and will have access to all of RTD’s financial, planning and operational information in order to evaluate and make recommendations.

The financial picture will be among the key items tackled. RTD’s Board on Tuesday night discussed a pending $252 million gap in the 2021 budget, left by an enormous drop in sales and use tax revenue and a massive loss of ridership because of COVID-19. Major changes to service levels and staff and operational size are likely to be recommended by RTD staff in coming months.

The Board discussion included an update on how deeply two major recessions cut into available FasTracks building and operating money after the 2004 regional vote, which approved a .4 percent sales tax dedicated to new transit projects. The cumulative gap between original 2004 forecasts and actual FasTracks tax collections through 2025 is expected to be a $2.1 billion loss, according to staff presentations. A train line from Denver through Boulder to Longmont alone is now expected to cost at least $1.5 billion to complete.

RTD has spent FasTracks money on transit for the north and northwest corridors, including the popular Flatiron Flyer bus rapid transit service between Boulder and Denver; B Line from Denver Union Station to Westminster; G Line from Denver Union Station to Arvada and Wheat Ridge; and the N Line commuter rail, from Denver Union Station to Thornton which is expected to open to riders this fall.