Transit advocates who gathered Wednesday to celebrate the Regional Transportation District’s fare-free August on its final day launched a new alliance that will push for more investment in public transportation in metro Denver.
Here’s what they envision: More frequent bus service, connecting more places. Upgrades of substandard bus stops. Road corridors improved to speed up bus travel. The goals set out by the new Alliance to Transform Transportation are aimed at attracting larger numbers of devoted riders — and they dovetail with ambitions in long-term plans drafted by RTD as well as state and regional transportation policymakers.
But those plans face significant financial constraints and could take a decade or two to bear fruit. The alliance wants urgency, hoping to see more money flowing by 2025.
“We recognize that one month of free transit doesn’t transform the system,” said Danny Katz, the director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, in an interview. “We need to build off the momentum that hopefully we now have from this one-month pilot.”
Anecdotal evidence during August suggests a modest increase in RTD ridership, which is still recovering from the pandemic. RTD joined about a dozen transit agencies across Colorado for the mostly state-subsidized “Zero Fare for Better Air” pilot, with the one-month promotion set to repeat again next summer.
RTD spokeswoman Marta Sipeki said Wednesday that boarding counts were still being collected, and solid ridership data typically takes two months to release. In mid-November, the agency expects to issue a state-required report analyzing the impact of the fare-free month, including not only ridership data but also survey responses by riders and employees and a review of security incidents.
The promotion bought rare goodwill for RTD, according to interviews with riders. But some of the agency’s longstanding problems — including staffing shortages that result in daily canceled bus and train runs — persisted.
It also weathered embarrassing mishaps. A suspension of the W-Line on Saturday limited key service on the day of a Broncos preseason game due to a power outage. And on Aug. 23, damage to crossing gates caused by trespassers sparked a disruption of A-Line service at several stations for most of the day.
What remains unclear is whether riders who tried out RTD bus and train lines during the month will stick around. David Bragdon, executive director of TransitCenter, a New York City-based research and advocacy organization, called fare-free pilots “a political gimmick,” arguing that long-lasting ridership growth requires investment in better service.
That is where the new alliance has set its sights.
COPIRG is joining with groups focused on the environment, alternative mobility options, the Latino community and the rights of disabled people, with an initial roster of 10 organizations hoping to speak passionately with a new collective voice. Representatives of several gathered during a celebration and launch event Wednesday evening at RTD’s Decatur-Federal Station on the W-Line.
“Working class people, students, people with disabilities and people of color deserve reliable access to employment, education and medical appointments,” said Paolo Solorzano, the RTD policy advocate for GreenLatinos, in a statement announcing the alliance’s formation. “Truly, investing in public transit is investing in basic human rights.”
Thinking big — as in billions of dollars
Initially, their goals for improving transit in metro Denver raise more questions than they answer.
Most of all: How much money would it take? And where would more money for cash-strapped RTD or other transit efforts come from? They’re thinking big, as in billions of dollars — perhaps coming from local investments by Denver and its suburbs, by the state legislature, by seeking voter approval for new taxes, or all of the above, Katz said.
For now, the increasing elevation of climate policies at the local, regional and state levels in Colorado gives Katz and other advocates optimism that solutions can be found.
In September, both the Denver Regional Council of Governments and the Colorado Transportation Commission are set to consider new long-term project plans. New rules adopted by the commission late last year require those revised plans to shift money from some, but not all, previously planned road and highway projects to other options that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including transit expansions.
Arguments over funding priorities are likely to get heated as the shifts happen.
Elected officials in some suburban communities still advocate for highway-widening projects to accommodate the state’s fast-growing population. They question the effectiveness of large investments in the transit system when the vast majority of Coloradans still drive every day.
But the alliance’s vision statement states flatly: “For decades, rather than sustainably investing in providing people good travel options, Colorado has poured a disproportionate amount of money into large highway expansion projects for cars, deepening our dependence on driving and harming underserved populations disproportionately with dangerous emissions.”
Other groups involved in the alliance include Bicycle Colorado, the Denver Streets Partnership, the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, Conservation Colorado, Servicios de la Raza and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001, which represents RTD operators and other employees.
On Thursday, it’s back to the status quo for RTD and its riders, which means a return to buying tickets and paying fares.
RTD also is launching a new MyRide system, moving from pre-loaded cards to online accounts that can be connected to its ticketing app, renamed RTD MyRide. Old cards won’t work on RTD’s new validators on buses and train platforms; users must transfer their balances to a new account online.
The changes won’t affect riders in the EcoPass and CollegePass programs.
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