Meet RTD District M Candidate Natalie Menten — A “Financial Watchdog”

Even people who use Denver’s transit system daily might be surprised to find out that a publicly elected board of directors oversees the Regional Transportation District. It’s true.

The 15-member RTD Board of Directors reps constituents from all over the map, literally, and makes decisions that affect Coloradans — in some ways more directly than the president. Eight seats are up for grabs this November 8.

Streetsblog wants you to be informed when you decide who fills those seats, so we’ve been publishing interviews with candidates leading up to Election Day. (Hat tip to Transit Alliance for the footage from a closed candidate forum last month.)

Next up: Natalie Menten. Menten, the incumbent, is running to represent District M, which covers all of Golden, Lakeside, Mountain View, the majority of Lakewood and Wheat Ridge, and portions of unincorporated Jefferson County. Her opponent is Dave Ruchman.

  • Most used RTD route: 1 and 21 buses, W-Line
  • Day job: RTD director
  • Lives in: South Lakewood
  • Website

Why are you running?

Because RTD is a lot of taxpayer money. Most people don’t use it. Somebody needs to be on the board who keeps a close eye on the dollars while recognizing that there are people who are transit-dependent, like my grandma. I grew up with transit as a choice. I was raised using buses. I’ve always had RTD in my life.

What I want to do is, as long as it’s taking as much taxpayer money as it does, then at least plan smart and be somebody on the board who is asking a lot of questions. What are we going to sacrifice for this FasTracks that ultimately does not serve the population as a whole? And a lot of that is about the bus service. So, things like going out to Montebello and saving a bus route that was gonna go to a grocery store. I stepped in because there was a problem.

On the board I felt a challenge. I’ve been handed, in some ways, a lemon. And now I’ve got to deal with it.

Is the FasTracks rail build-out the lemon?

Yeah. Different components of it. I want to make sure that, with all the money that went into FasTracks, that bus riders are not forgotten.

FasTracks is gonna start to suck up so much money of what’s available, that it’s gonna affect operations. And that means bus routes are gonna be affected even more. The state of good repair is gonna be affected even more. And what the financial forecasts are predicting is that we’re gonna have another dip. A pretty big one. What’s gonna happen to the majority of our riders — our bus riders? What’s gonna happen to them? That’s why you need a financial watchdog.

What can you do to avoid bus riders losing service?

Always tighten the belt first. Last year, finally, after three years of harping, I got RTD’s checkbook online, along with our purchase orders. A staffer said to me, “Director Menten, I’ve got to tell you, when it came down that you wanted these finances online, there were people that were very uncomfortable with it.”

Now we’re getting calls from distributors and sources, locally and long distance, who are already putting in bids to save us money. Because they didn’t know we bought these kinds of things. We didn’t know they sold them.

Screen Shot 2016-11-01 at 11.53.54 AM
The geographic boundaries of District M. Map: RTD

The next thing you can do is to look at your debt. We’re paying interest to a lot of these Wall Street groups, and that interest isn’t really paying for bus service. It pays for capital. What I wanted to do is to finally — and it’s probably an idea that’s novel to most governments — put in a budget that creates a capital savings account for buses. Instead of using certificates of participation, which is a borrowing instrument, we will start to save for those buses that we need all year round — things that really serve the majority of the riders. We just did that. And then I turned around and I voted no. You want to know why? Because we were still spending too much.

Do you think it’s RTD’s responsibility to grow ridership?

I think it’s RTD’s responsibility to provide a transportation alternative.

An alternative to what?

Cars.

So do you think transit should be competitive with driving? In other words, should using RTD and driving be more or less equally convenient?

I don’t think it should be RTD’s job to compete to no end with cars. I would look at as a business owner. What you do as a business owner is you serve your customers. You offer them an alternative. And for some people, economically, a car versus bus or train works out about the same.

Do you think RTD’s fares are affordable?

I think they are affordable. Especially when you look at the half-off option and the day pass option that lets you ride around all day for $2.60 for seniors. The system is already greatly subsidized. I voted for the increase in the cap on the nonprofit program. I was a yes vote on that because I thought that maybe it might increase ridership because more of the nonprofits will buy into the program. Which is good, because then I don’t have to look at subsidies like $27 per boarding.

What is RTD’s role in housing and development around transit stations?

I don’t think RTD should be in the real estate business.

What’s your governing style?

Here’s my thing: I would rather do like I do and have coffee with neighbors and go to their neighborhood meetings. I don’t go to a lot of fancy events. I don’t. As a matter of fact I’ve asked for an audit, and hope to get that audit in whether I am reelected or not. That’s our tax money.

Are you saving just for the sake of saving taxpayers money? Or to grow the transit system?

I think it should be redirected within the budget. So not growth, but instead of an arts project, maybe we should investigate having bathrooms at stations — because there are people who don’t ride transit because there’s not a bathroom. Less fluff, more sustenance.

Why should voters vote for you?

I believe I’ve done a good job making RTD more transparent — and certainly not being a rubber stamp. I brought good ideas to the table, common sense things that don’t cost a lot of money. I’ve also protected ridership in my district as best as I can with what I was handed.

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