AURORA | Elected officials in Aurora’s northern pocket this weekend publicly asked for the Regional Transportation District to reinstate bus service to the Adams County courthouse in Brighton, but RTD officials have countered that adding the stop would require hard-to-find labor resources and have a ripple effect across the network.
As first reported by Denver7, Adams County Commissioner Eva Henry and 17th Judicial District Attorney Brian Mason published several tweets on July 31 and Aug. 1 calling for RTD officials to again send buses to a stop in front of the justice center on Judicial Center Drive after service there was cut when the new N rail line opened last year.
“The only way for people to get there is by car if you can afford one,” Henry tweeted on Saturday. “This is an example of (RTD) not providing services to a community that desperately needs one.”
A bevy of Adams County officials, including the entire board of commissioners, Mason, the local public defender’s office and the district’s chief judge, sent a formal letter to RTD last week demanding the bus service start running again, according to a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office.
“It is unusual for the district attorney, the chief judge and the head of the public defender’s office to all see eye to eye on one issue, and we all see eye to eye on this,” Mason said. “This is an access to justice problem.”
The Democratic district attorney said the lack of bus service unfairly hampers the public’s ability to get to mandatory in-person court appearances, which have slowly ramped up since jury trials began anew in March.
“When a defendant is ordered to come to court, they don’t have a choice as to whether they can show up,” Mason said. “When a victim is subpoenaed to come to court, they don’t have a choice — they are required to come to court. When a juror gets a jury summons, that also is a court order. These folks are required to come to the Adams County courthouse, and they need to have a method to get here … Taking away the bus stop and bus service outside the courthouse is inexplicable to me.”
RTD officials said the agency did not receive any comments on a plan to skip that particular bus stop when a public input process conducted in anticipation of the N Line opening began in 2019. The bus along the 520 bus line ceased stopping at the shelter beside the justice center in September 2020, according to Pauletta Tolinas, spokesperson for RTD.
“During that process we did not get comments about these service changes,” Tonilas said. “…We heard interest in improving service to the area and adding service on Saturdays. That essentially created a tradeoff where it reduced the length of the 520 bus routes, so instead of going all the way to where it used to go it shortened that bus trip to what it is now.”
The changes were made, in part, due to low ridership at the courthouse stop, according to Tonilas, who said an average of less than one person would get off at the stop during each of the bus’s 32 daily halts there.
There are a pair of alternate bus routes near the courthouse, though both require a roughly half-mile walk after getting off the bus. She said commuters can also connect to the 520 bus via the new N Line.
“There still is bus service serving the area, but it is a little bit of a farther walk for people,” Tonilas said. “…Public transit is really not set up to operate as a door-to-door service for everyone, and that’s tough because ultimately that’s what everybody desires. But we make every attempt possible to make transit as accessible to as many destinations as possible.”
The two stops close but not adjacent to the courthouse boast higher ridership numbers, with about three people getting off during each of the bus’s daily stops, according to RTD statistics.
Mason said it is “unrealistic” to expect a defendant, juror or crime victim a make a cumulative one-mile schlep when coming to court.
“I also think that’s cruel,” he said.
Henry added that the bus stops farther from the courthouse could be problematic for people with limited mobility.
“People with disabilities might have problems getting back and forth, especially in bad weather,” she said.
Henry estimated it would cost about $80 to take a ride share like Uber or Lyft to the courthouse from most places in Adams County, largely because the local legal hub is so far removed from main arterials.
Tonilas said that restarting the courthouse stop would require a bus to fully turn around, adding about three minutes to the route and prompting reverberations throughout the system that could misalign stops synced with the N Line rail schedule. It would also require another bus and two additional drivers, according to Marta Sipeki, another spokesperson for RTD.
“That will add three to four minutes to that service, which in turn has a domino effect for later connections,” Sipeki said. “It isn’t just a simple thing of adding another stop.”
The focus on court access comes as the state faces a gargantuan backlog of criminal trials spurred by COVID-19-related delays. When Mason’s district resumed jury trials in March, there were about 730 felony cases set for trial. That number has since been cut to just under 700 pending felony trials, according to a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office. There are several hundred additional misdemeanor trials in the queue.
Prior to the pandemic, the 17th Judicial District typically had about 250 cases set for trial at any given time, according to Mason.
“We have an unprecedented backlog of jury trials,” he said. “Just as we are trying to get those numbers down and get jury trials going again and make sure that we are seeking justice for defendants and for victims, RTD is making it harder for those folks to get to court.”
Tonilas said the public input process for the next round of service changes across the district next year is slated to occur in September. The public can weigh in on service recommendations at any time by emailing [email protected] or calling 303-299-2004.
She said RTD officials are in communication with various Adams County politicos, and that RTD CEO Debra Johnson recently took a trip to the Adams County courthouse to evaluate the stop for herself.
“Anything is possible,” Tonilas said. “…But a request that doesn’t seem like it is a heavy ask is very complicated because of everything else that’s involved in affecting service to the whole area.”