Former Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan said it would be a “cold day in” — pausing for comedic effect — “February” when the R Line would snake along I-225 through Aurora.
He was right. The transit line opened in February 2017. Since then, local leaders have had to champion the R Line as it’s failed to meet expectations set out in the planning stages of the light-rail segment.
Based on RTD’s August 2018 calculations, the most recent, there are about 5,700 daily riders on the R Line, according to Regional Transportation District spokeswoman Christine Jaquez. She said 2019 numbers have yet to be calculated down to the exact number. But one thing is clear: the district, nearly 60 miles of rail line, isn’t performing as well as RTD officials had predicted.
Across the region, light-rail ridership is down almost 14 percent, according to numbers provided in a report to RTD directors last month. In addition, ridership across all RTD modes, buses or light-rail, is either down or flat from last year.
There isn’t a defining reason why, just like local and RTD officials haven’t been able to point to an underperforming R Line. A new rate schedule essentially decreased fares for poorer riders at the expense of riders who financially don’t qualify for discounts.
A 3-hour pass to ride the train or bus through most of Aurora costs about $3 without discounts. But to go to Denver, that price pushes $6. For a day-pass, serving as a round-trip ticket to and from Denver, the price pushes $11. A monthly pass allowing for bus or train rides to and from Denver or the airport is $200, without a discount.
RTD had hoped the R Line would attract an average 12,000 riders each day.
According to RTD statistics last year, the Aurora Municipal Center station ranks 44th out of the agency’s 59 train stations. The 1,300 riders the station averages daily doesn’t come close to other suburban stations like Englewood with 5,400, downtown Littleton with 3,500 and Belleview Station in Greenwood Village with 2,800.
Jaquez previously told The Sentinel there are a lot of possibilities why the R Line comes in well short of those initial ridership projections. The entire southeast corridor, which ranges from the Broadway Station down I-25 and up to Nine Mile Station, at I-225 and Parker Road, was projected to have about 33,800 riders each day in 2009. The projections for 2020 are set at 38,100 daily riders.
As a result of the low numbers in ridership, RTD has decreased the number of cars traveling the route, forcing riders into fewer cars, and the route itself has faced some weekend service cuts.
Part of the issue for the R Line, according to Jaquez, is that the agency may have simply over-estimated how many people would ride the R Line, though they had cause for optimism.
A big reason is the delay-plagued Veteran’s Affairs hospital at Colfax and I-225, but it’s open and operating now. Additionally, a bevy of Transit Oriented Development apartment buildings have been going up along the RTD stations. But most are still just plans or under construction.
RTD Director Bob Broom, who represents most of Aurora west of I-225, said with more TOD sites, which include housing and retail components, coming online will undoubtedly help increase ridership.
“All of the lines were held up for a period of time, and not all of the lines were built yet, so that makes it hard as a developer to decide when you’re going to pull the trigger on a project,” he said of the reason why Aurora’s TOD projects are just now seeing residents.
A new TOD project near the Iliff Station is slated to offer residents a brand new stock of apartments and shops. Incoming residents are beginning to move in there now.
“Nine Mile and Parker Road, that area is under construction. You’re going to see some ridership from there,” Broom said, highlighting the Regatta Plaza project.
Claudia Folska, the RTD director who represents most of Aurora’s eastern regions, said that while RTD doesn’t focus primarily on city planning, there is a major link between transit services and housing. The stops along the A Line and downtown are in high density areas, but as affordable housing moves to the metro region’s outer edges, like east Aurora, there’s more of a need to look at planning and development through the scope of transportation.
“It takes time to fill in (service gaps) and so whether it’s finishing all of our lines and connecting our buses or Uber or whatever it is, municipalities need to catch up with it as well,” she said. “I think you’ll see that over time.”
Broom said the R Line, while under performing, isn’t underperforming nearly as badly as the district as a whole. He said R Line ridership is down just more than 3 percent, a nod to the development Aurora has been undergoing along its rail line.
“Next year, RTD will change its emphasis from construction to increasing ridership on existing lines,” he said. “With a bigger system you have more opportunities to serve people. We’ll see more people changing their community habits over time.”
Broom also pointed to Aurora’s less expensive housing stock, which might make commuting via the R Line and increasingly more attractive option to Aurora residents who work in downtown Denver or along major other employment hubs.
Eventually, he said, Broom sees some kind of connection to Aurora’s Gaylord Rockies, which opened this year, and is already boasting a full schedule of visitors. For the majority of people looking to commute via public transportation from the east side of I-225, the trip can be a whole day affair.
Still, RTD says that while rail ridership is down, bus ridership has seen an increase. One area they’ve pointed to is around the University of Colorado Anschutz Campus in north Aurora.
That region, which has seen a throng of redevelopment in recent years, has lured the attention of some city council members who have said keeping housing prices low should be a city priority, particularly in apartment buildings and neighborhoods a short distance away from R Line access.
Aurora City Council members voted unanimously last July in favor of rezoning 4.8 acres at the corner East 14th Avenue and Potomac Street so that developers can move forward on a high-rise condominium project at the site. While construction is still years away, council members cited concerns of pushing out low-income residents who benefit from being close to amenities such as the nearby rail station.
Priced to ride
Everything’s got a price, and less rides means more trouble for RTD. In fact, RTD already had to raise its prices this year to finance its buses and light rail lines.
RTD has a dedicated sales-tax stream, but it, by law, must run a balanced budget, funded by only fares and its 1 percent sales tax. The mass-transit district covers about 142,000 miles ever day with buses, shuttles and trains. The annual budget for 2018 was $676 million.
Gone are the days of $2.60 for a standard bus ticket. Gone are the days of a light rail ride to the airport for less than ten dollars. Those RTD fares increased to $3 and $10.50, respectively, in January.
RTD officials cited rising prices for goods and services in the region as the motivation for raising fares. Regional fares also rose from $4.50 to $5.25.
But with more cash expected to come in, RTD created a low-income fare program, slashing 40 percent of those prices for certain households. The cut off for a single-person household is an annual income of about $23,000. For a household of four, the threshold is about $47,000.
Young riders, aged between 6 and 19, also won a 70 percent decline. That brings a bus ticket down to whopping 90 cents for Denver area youth.
–GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer