Congress agreed in late December to provide Covid financial relief worth about 900 Billion dollars that includes money for Amtrak and Transit. According to Senator Warner’s office, the 45 billion for transportation would include 15 billion for mass transit, 1 billion for Amtrak and 8 billion for the bus/motorcoach industry. RTD is currently waiting to see what portion will be distributed to it.
This is the news that RTD and our region have been waiting for. Since the Pandemic started in February of 2020, transit agencies have been eagerly waiting for financial relief. Most transit agencies depend on sales tax, local government contributions, and fares to maintain transportation in their region. The first stimulus package enabled RTD to sustain employment and service in the spring. RTD also used dollars to create a robust bus/train cleaning process that helps eliminate contamination and placed plexiglass in each bus to help protect drivers and passengers. RTD is currently around 60% of last year’s production while ridership is down to 40%. In December RTD started implementing cuts in employment and a reduction in salaries to its staff.
I’ve spoken to several RTD Directors and it is a consensus that operations in 2021 will remain the same until the sales tax forecast improves. Funding from any stimulus package will be used to prop up RTD and may result in re-hiring some employees that have been recently released and may result in the return of some services and frequency of service in 2021. However, if the stimulus payment is much larger, then RTD will adjust accordingly.
To rebound from 2020, changes in the transit climate will need a positive Sales Tax Forecast and the return of riders. The success of RTD will primarily rely on the return of riders. For our transit environment to return to some sense of normalcy riders can help by
As bleak the year 2020 has been for transit there are some opportunities in 2021 for RTD to help stabilize transit. In 2020, an advisory committee was established by the State Legislature to review operating restrictions on RTD. These restrictions were established when RTD was chartered by the legislature in 1969 The three restrictions that the legislature seemed most interested in modifying are, farebox ratio, parking fees, and use of RTD properties.
Farebox ratio– RTD is required by State Law to have a percentage of its budget come from farebox ratio. The other major source of income is sales tax. It is presumed that the legislature in 1969 wanted an additional contribution to transit services by those people using the service. However, the sales tax is applied to everyone whether or not you use the service or not.
Current fare collections,
CRS 32-9-119.7(3)states: The district shall take whatever measures it deems necessary to ensure that the following percentages of its operating costs are funded by revenues collected, as follows:
If the legislature lifts this requirement as recommended by the RTD accountability committee, RTD will have options to change the ratio or to eliminate the farebox altogether. Unfortunately, a zero farebox is probably not possible at this time. Unless RTD receives dollars to fill that 20% gap it will probably use the option to lower fares during emergencies as we experienced in 2020 from the pandemic. The fact that the recovery from the pandemic will probably occur late this year RTD could have had the option of suspending or lower fare during this period of recovery. Other influences that could eliminate a transit fare would be an increase in the sales tax percentage or major dollars from the federal government. The new federal administration has promised more support for transit in the U.S. If funding were provided from them as an essential service then perhaps long-term funding could help Colorado have fareless transit systems. Most of our European friends enjoy low and in some regions no fares because their government considers transit essential and it provides a major portion of funding for their transit systems
One of the restrictions that we all need to acknowledge is that, unlike the federal government, State and local governments have to maintain a balanced budget. It is great that the Federal government can create larger deficits during times of need. This option has provided an opportunity to print more money and provide stimulus packages for its citizens. By law our local governments are not allowed to spend money and just hope they meet their targets at the end of the year. They cannot create budgets that have deficits.
If this recommendation from the Advisory Committee is passed by the 2021 State Legislature,
The Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition will be working with Mile High Connects and other organizations in farebox reforms in 2021. Note: The State has postponed starting its 2021 Legislative session until February 16th due to the pandemic.
Parking– Another restriction that was placed on RTD in 1969 was that transit users would have free access to parking. Before the Pandemic, RTD was experiencing a drop in ridership. One of the glaring observations was that most parking lots assigned to transit were not being fully used. This causes two concerns. Is the property an asset or an operational liability? It is estimated that each parking spot is worth $12 thousand dollars (this number varies with location) on the real estate market. If RTD does not have the option to recover some revenue it would be best to guess that the property is a liability. RTD has two options to work with if allowed by the State Legislature. One, charge a nominal fee for parking. Though the use of parking is down, it is not reasonable to expect the property to sit idle without allowing the owner to recover some revenue from it. However, RTD will have to be careful not to charge too much or it will be a disincentive for users to use the system. The second initiative that RTD can make is to identify parking areas that show no potential for further use and to sell those properties or work collaboratively with local developers to build transit-friendly housing. ( see more in Properties)
Properties– RTD needs more flexibility in the use of its properties. Properties near transit have grown in value especially since the implementation of new rail lines around the region. The lines provide better opportunities to travel within the district and people are starting to acknowledge the benefits of living near transit. RTD may want to sell certain properties that have limited development. This provides funding to the current budget but this type of sale does not have a long-term benefit to the agency. Another use of properties are collaborations between RTD and developers. This is an opportunity to create annual revenue by working with developers to create housing, commerce, and recreation on RTD properties.
Summary: These possible initiatives on their own cannot solve the financial problems that RTD is facing. However, combine the three and there is potential to provide a 5-10 percent impact on RTD’s budget. If you have an opportunity to attend hearings concerning these issues at the State Legislature we encourage you to do so. Letting them know how important transit is to you will help these recommendations become a reality. Information on how to attend meetings remotely are at https://leg.colorado.gov/
One of the fascinations I have with working with on Transit, as an advocate, is that it is always evolving. One of the changes we will see in the next few years is the electrification of transit systems. Whether it is just electrification of transit fleets or the use of autonomous vehicles, CCDC will be at the table to ensure that the implementation of this technology is accessible to our community.
A few years ago CCDC was invited to see the pilot program for autonomous vehicles in Colorado. We were able to identify many obstacles for our community and gave the manufacturers our concerns and advice on how to make these vehicles accessible.
In 2021, CCDC will be working with (TEEM) Towards Electrical Equitable Mobility
Background: The current transportation system presents challenges for racial equity, mobility, and climate change goals. It is the largest source of air pollution in the United States, with environmental and health implications disproportionately experienced in low-income communities of color. For many, poor access to transportation is a barrier stemming from policies that have discriminated on the basis of race. Today transportation is the second-highest household expense for most people, and a person’s commute time is the most critical factor in their chances of escaping poverty. One solution to many of these challenges is innovative mobility programs that utilize electric mobility. The formation of partnerships between racial equity advocates and traditional environmental organizations will be vital to ensure that such programs are approved, funded, and implemented successfully. If mobility and electrification programs are designed to work for historically underserved communities, they will work better for all communities and will maximize the environmental and economic benefits of electrification.
Purpose of the TEEM Community of Practice: We aim to establish a peer-to-peer community of advocates to share policy goals, learn together, build relationships, and in the process develop a sense of belonging and mutual commitment towards advancing racial equity, electric mobility, and climate change goals.
Though TEEM focuses on racial and environmental equity they realized that the disability community is also a key benefactor when transit is improved. That is why we are participating along with 4 other states to share information about and for electrification of transit systems.
CCDC will be performing outreach activities in 2021 to get feedback about transit equity and to provide findings that the five state collaborative discovers. We look forward to our own Colorado community to participate in this process so that we continue to be at the table.
Jaime Lewis, CCDC Transit Advisor