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Senate committee hearing on RTD oversight bill shines a light on services for disabled riders

Customers with disabilities say RTD needs to do a better job serving those who most need transit

John Barr, crossing an RTD bridge in a power wheelchair
John Barr, who has cerebral palsy, uses the wheelchair-accessible Regional Transportation District system in 2013. Lawmakers are considering an RTD oversight bill at the state Capitol. (Aaron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)
By JOHN AGUILAR | | The Denver Post
PUBLISHED: February 18, 2020 at 8:31 p.m. | UPDATED: February 18, 2020 at 8:42 p.m.

Legislation that would tighten state oversight of the troubled Regional Transportation District got its first hearing in front of lawmakers Tuesday, and the focus was squarely on how well the metro area’s disabled community is being served by transit.

Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, characterized Senate Bill 151 as a “pro-RTD bill.” She was one of nearly a dozen members of the disabled community who attended the proceedings in front of the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee.

“Without RTD, we don’t have jobs or the ability to live independently,” Reiskin told lawmakers.

That is why it’s so important that the bill, which Reiskin said would provide necessary additional protections for disabled passengers, needs to become law.

The Senate Transportation and Energy Committee, which is chaired by Democratic Sen. Faith Winter, will take another day of testimony on March 3 before voting on whether to move the bill through.

Andrew Montoya, an attorney with the coalition, said that if disabled riders could bring complaints against RTD in state court, rather than just in federal court per the Americans with Disabilities Act, faster and more effective outcomes could be achieved.

He said federal disability cases are “extremely expensive and time-consuming,” citing one lawsuit his organization filed against RTD that dragged out for three years.

But RTD fired back, saying that SB 151 could potentially burden the transit agency with an avalanche of litigation as the agency tries to comply with a “legal standard that seems impossible to meet,” said RTD attorney Jenifer Ross-Amato.

“Broadening liability will invite litigation and the threat of litigation,” she testified. “The bill creates new protected classes not identified in federal law.”

Zamy Silva, senior manager of RTD’s civil rights division, was adamant that the agency is fully compliant with ADA requirements and said RTD’s “complaint procedure is very, very robust.”

“It’s embedded in our mission and core values,” she said.

SB 151 was introduced in late January and contains several elements that have gotten pushback from RTD. Spearheaded by Republican Sen. Jack Tate, the measure would expand RTD’s elected 15-member board of directors by two new members, both of whom would be appointed by the governor. The new at-large directors would be tasked with advocating for disadvantaged communities in the district and riders with disabilities.

There would also be two non-voting members — the state treasurer and the executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation — who would provide increased fiscal oversight and transportation planning coordination.

Heather McKillop, who is heading up RTD until newly hired Interim General Manager Paul Ballard starts in his position next week, said more bodies on the dais may not be a wise move.

“We do have concerns that adding four additional members would make the board somewhat unwieldy,” she told lawmakers.

She also noted that RTD is already heavily audited by no fewer than 13 external agencies.

SB 151 would call for a higher level of transparency at RTD, including placing directors under the constraints of Amendment 41 and giving whistle-blower protection to employees filing complaints. Amendment 41, passed by voters 13 years ago, requires all elected officials to disclose any benefit or gift they receive valued at more than $59, with some exceptions.

RTD has been in the spotlight of late, besieged with the twin evils of falling ridership and a driver shortage. Late last year, the agency said it would have to consider making significant cuts to bus and train service to better align its service with the workers it has to operate its fleet.

On Wednesday, RTD will launch the first of more than a dozen community meetings throughout the metro area — to be held over the next two weeks — to get public feedback on its proposed service cuts. The RTD board will make a final decision on any curtailments in March. Any changes would go into effect in May.

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