EDITORIAL: FARE WARNING — RTD’s proposed budget and rate plan won’t work

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After months of RTD officials agonizing over how to change fares to increase ridership and offer a system that’s sympathetic to the economic reality of riders who need mass transit most, a proposal nearing adoption falls far short of what’s needed. 

The Regional Transportation District’s large board of directors are slated to take up next month the year’s long effort to restructure fares.

Here’s the problem. The metro area is a sprawling labyrinth of mostly low-density homes spread out over a convoluted road system that is far over its capacity.

The RTD provides bus and rail services over too-large an area on an inadequate, fixed budget that depends far too heavily on fares. RTD serves about 3 million people across 2,300 square miles in eight, huge counties. RTD does all this with a $626 million budget.

Essentially, the metro area is teaming with millions of people who grew up getting around in cars living in a metroplex that nearly demands a resident own and drive a car. RTD runs a system that, rather than enticing commuters out of their beloved autos, makes using mass transit either so expensive or so inconvenient for most people, that spiraling down ridership is nearly a guaranteed prospect.

And that seems to be the case. Tepid ridership across the system has been stagnant or diminishing since 2008, even as the metro-area population has exploded,

So for months, an RTD working group has been building a plan by consensus that essentially tweaks the existing broken structure in hopes of drawing more needy riders onto the bus. The plan for more riders paying less would backfill lost revenue sure to occur when they raise rates for non-subsidized riders. Logic makes clear they’ll get off the bus when the price gets even higher.
Even if RTD shows some modicum of success in slowing the loss of riders or even showing some net gains, this is not a winning strategy.

What the current proposal seeks is to create a new class of passengers who are poor, really poor. The plan creates a 40 percent discount for those who make 140 percent of the federal poverty level, about $22,000 for a single person, about $44,000 for a family of four.

For those who don’t qualify, you can get a three-hour bus pass for $3, $6 for the day. If you live in Aurora and want to go to most places in Denver, the prices rise fast to $5,25 and $10.50. Being very poor gets you a 40 percent discount. Those under 19 can pay far less, too.

In many ways, this plan seems reasonable, especially in light of RTD not being able to easily, or ever, draw in more public or tax revenues to offset the cost of fares. Cash in cannot exceed cash out.

The problem is, the fares don’t pass the reality test because the system is too unreliable or inconvenient to justify the costs — for most people. For those who don’t live adjacent to a light-rail station, which is the vast majority of metro residents, they have to drive just to get the train. Commuters with jobs, walking to bus stops for irregular and undependable service are then further inconvenienced by have to find a way to work after departing the station they get off at. For too many commuters, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to make mass transit work, especially for what appears to most people to be more money than it takes to sit in gridlock in a car.

While we see the need and the wisdom in granting discounts to the poorest RTD riders, anyone who makes just $23,000 a year, or even $30,000 a year, can tell you they, too, desperately struggle to make ends meet in the overpriced metroplex.

The RTD discounts are certainly needed, but they’re needed for far more riders, who can’t afford or justify a seat on the bus.

This is a system that is supposed to serve a wide range of commuters and places, but it mostly makes sense only for Denver residents or those in optimum places headed to and from Denver. Rates are among the highest in the country in a place that makes riding mass transit too hard for most people.

Denver Public Schools uses the RTD system to bolster its own frail school transportation system, passing the costs onto taxpayers and RTD patrons all over the metro area. The same for riders in Castle Rock, Boulder and Evergreen, who really do get a deal, but at the expense of riders in Thornton, Aurora or Wheat Ridge, who see system as nothing but too inconvenient and too expensive.

Rather than play this endless game of fair-fare whack-a-mole, local city, county and RTD officials should work to raise revenues to reduce fares for all riders and improve service, especially to and from light-rail stations.

Anything else is just another episode of RTD spinning its wheels.