Fixing Denver Transit Barely Registers With RTD Board of Directors

Image: RTD
RTD is doing great, according to RTD’s draft strategic five-year plan. Image: RTD

The Regional Transportation District’s Board of Directors is more concerned with expansion to the outer suburbs than with providing better transit in Denver itself. At least that’s what we can glean from a conversation board members had last night about RTD’s strategic five-year plan.

Board members critiqued the draft plan for various shortcomings — it’s too detailed, it doesn’t stress low-income subsidies — but never once did anybody ask what RTD plans to do to improve transit service in Denver, the engine of the region’s economy.

The omission was curious because Denver officials are working on an intra-city transit plan that would improve service with higher bus frequencies, bus rapid transit routes, and possibly light rail or streetcar lines in the future. Maybe Denver will buy up service from RTD to pull off some of the improvements, or maybe the city will start its own transit company. That remains to be seen. Regardless, it should be on RTD’s radar.

What was obvious from last night’s discussion was that board members aren’t as worried about the shoddiness of transit service in Denver as they are with suburban and exurban expansion. This despite — or maybe because of — all the money and attention that has already been lavished on FasTracks, the monumental project to build a regional transit network.

FasTracks was and is necessary, but the board is already talking about adding routes beyond the five new lines opening next year. Board member Kent Bagley, for instance, wants RTD to be “a leader on the Front Range.”

“Who knows what this district may be charged with in the future or decide to take on?” Bagley said in a critique of the plan. “So I think it’s really important to look at what’s going on in the Front Range, maybe in the state.” Bagley had just returned from a transit conference in Salt Lake City, where he apparently became enthralled by the idea of connecting the metro area to the ski slopes. Does anyone think that’s a good use of limited resources for an agency that needs to help people get to work and conduct their daily lives?

Here’s what RTD’s draft five-year plan says about “system optimization”:

FasTracks, however, will not meet all the transit demands expected during the longer time horizon of 15 to 25 years. These 2040 transit needs, based on Denver Regional Council of Governments jobs and housing growth projections, must be planned for implementation a decade or more from now. Addressing these needs may require improving the existing system’s capacity. Other needs will likely be met by a thorough exploration of bus rapid transit investments throughout the District, both on arterial streets and on State highways.

The above language wasn’t vague enough for board member Lorraine Anderson, who said, “I think in order to be flexible the strategic plan should not be too detailed.” But that’s the problem: There’s no detailed plan to improve Denver’s transit system, even as demand grows, along with its population.

Blame the structure of RTD. The same governing body responsible for busing people from Five Points to Lowry is responsible for busing people from Boulder to Pine. Board members from every corner of the region represent constituencies with different needs, making RTD’s governing system unwieldy and diffuse.

Regional connections are important, but now that Denver’s growing up, it’s time for a mature approach to its transit issues. The board’s reaction to the strategic plan underlines the need for an approach to transit that devotes sorely-needed attention to the urbanizing, growing city of Denver.

  • neroden

    With regard to Fastracks, the RTD board should focus on finishing what it already promised. For example, the Northwest Rail Line to Boulder and Longmont, or the Central Corridor in downtown Denver.

    They shouldn’t be allowed to spend a dime on other expansions until they finish what they already promised.

    • mckillio

      There isn’t enough money to be able to do the NW line any time soon. RTD is required to have the funds for a project before they can start it and they don’t have the $1.2b+ necessary for it or even close to it. Personally, I can’t believe that Longmont agreed to the tax in the first place and if I were them, I would be working on getting the money back.

      • Véronique Bellamy

        There is enough money. Problem is, RTD is pissing it away on stupid shit like Public Private Partnerships. And we can see how well it’s working out for them. Just look at the A line and all of its service outages.

  • Fritz

    The elected board has not only gotten us politicized transportation planning, but also nutjobs like Natalie Menten, who sought election to basically get more “incriminating” documents to post on her personal website. Great move!

  • John Riecke

    Bagley may be right when it comes to connecting Denver and the front range with transit. RTD is the only game in town, CDOT sure as heck isn’t interested.

    That being said, they need to finish what they promised first. Do they have to do the ehole NW line at once? Can they just build out as cash comes available?

    RTD was created in a time when it made sense. Maybe it’s time for Denver to grow up and put together it’s own agency. Let RTD handle the regional stuff and take our city lines off their plate. Might be better all around.

    • mckillio

      Great point on building the NW line out section by section, they’re already dong it with the first section.

      • Véronique Bellamy

        “section” makes it sound more built out than it’s going to be. I prefer to call it a “nub”.

    • neroden

      That’s what Seattle and Portland did, more ore less; they each have both a ‘city operator’ and a ‘regional operator’.

      “Let RTD handle the regional stuff and take our city lines off their plate.”

      The City should just build the Colfax line immediately.

      • Véronique Bellamy

        Well, that’s certainly one option. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, they have several transit authorities. Muni, VTA and several others… and many of them are connected via the BART.

    • MyOpinionIsMyOwn

      TIL people think CDOT manages public transportation.

  • dave

    At the Colfax Corridor presentation last year, all the RTD representative had to say was “We support this initiative but our priority right now is fasttracks.” At this point, Fasttracks is a major distraction to improving intra-city transit. Denver should step up and make the investment. The next Better Denver Bond with a federal match would be a good opportunity.

  • JerryG

    The thing is, even if RTD did not have FasTracks to finish, even if it was complete and everyone was happy with it, all those people taxes to help fund RTD will have zero interest in funding a transit system that, from their view, “only” Denver residents will benefit from. That’s incorrect because everyone could/would benefit, but those suburban residents would not want to pay for it. Denver, the city, needs to take this on. Partner with RTD, partner with private enterprise but don’t wait for RTD to step up. They won’t do it because they can’t.

    • Véronique Bellamy

      Even though public private partnerships have a history of ending badly and being more expensive than a public option.

  • Véronique Bellamy

    The thing is, we’re not going to attract anyone to join the District if transit in the District is shoddy. We’re neglecting our obligation to the communities in the district and the further outside of downtown Denver and Boulder you get, the shoddier service becomes. We need to refactor how transit is done and serve the existing district at an acceptable level.

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