Fixing Denver Transit: Fairer Fares

The cost of a one-way fare in Denver is "among the highest" of all the comparable cities Denveright planners examined. Image: City and County of Denver
The cost of a one-way fare in Denver is "among the highest" of all the comparable cities Denveright planners examined. Image: City and County of Denver

As part of our series on fixing Denver’s transit system, today Streetsblog is focusing on fares and how to make them more affordable.

“Compared to its peer cities, Denver has among the highest one-way fares,” according to a recent report from the team working on the Denveright transit plan. Overall, they concluded, RTD’s fares “are relatively high” compared to Seattle, Portland, D.C., Salt Lake City, Austin, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Minneapolis.

A one-way fare on a bus or train runs $2.60 for a local trip or $4.50 for a regional trip. None of the peer cities except Salt Lake have higher prices.

For many people, the bus and train are lifelines for getting to work, the grocery store, or anywhere else beyond walking distance of their home. Most of RTD’s riders come from households making less than $50,000 a year, according to an RTD survey.

Image: RTD
Image: RTD

Denver also has three fare zones, a set-up that “can be cost-prohibitive for people with lower incomes” who have to travel across multiple zones, the Denveright report found.

For example, if you live in Green Valley Ranch and work five days a week downtown, the commute would traverse all zones, costing $9 daily, or $180 per month ($171 if you buy a monthly pass). Portland’s TriMet system, in contrast, has a single fare zone with a flat $2.50 fare.

High fares can combine with cheap driving costs to turn people away from transit. “With the low cost of parking and lack of roadway tolls, driving can be a more appealing travel choice than taking transit and paying a high fare cost,” the report states.

RTD’s state-mandated policy of providing cheap parking at stations is especially regressive. Less affluent transit riders who don’t drive to the train are, in effect, subsidizing more affluent car-owning transit riders, while agencies do little to improve the quality of walking access to transit, which would help low-income riders most of all.

"The cost of RTD’s monthly fares for regional trips is less than UTA and WMATA’s monthly fares, but the majority of peer agency monthly fares are lower than RTD," according to the report. Image: City and County of Denver
The cost range of Denver’s monthly transit passes is also on the high end compared to peer cities. Image: City and County of Denver

While the Denveright team says the current fare structure has to change, they haven’t laid out detailed recommendations to fix it yet. “Local day passes at $5.20 (the cost of a local round trip) can reduce costs for riders making multiple trips in a single day,” the report states. “RTD’s Community Pass Programs can also provide cost savings for some neighborhoods and for college students, but other programmatic improvements could help improve access to transit and increase ridership.”

Specific proposals to improve the fare system will presumably be developed as the Denveright plan progresses.

If you missed the first two installments of Streetsblog’s Fixing Denver Transit series, catch up with our posts about the shoddiness of Denver’s bus stops and the lack of dedicated bus lanes on city streets.

  • Brian Schroder

    The fare should be cheaper period and then people will use it more often. When people balk at the idea of subsidizing transit they should be reminded that without road subsidies they wouldn’t have roads, bridges, or highways to drive on.

    • mckillio

      But they would say that the subsidies for roads is much less than it is for transit, 70% for RTD and lessish than 50% for roads. I would point out that the subsidy for parking and not paying for the pollution isn’t taken into account though. However, I don’t know what those two numbers would add up to.

      • Brian Schroder

        One thing to consider the 50% subsidy is not enough to maintain the current infrastructure so even though it’s lower it should be higher…thus the crumbling 6 trillion dollar infrastructure backlog.

        • mckillio

          Correct, we can easily (partially at least) fix that by reducing the subsidy, making drivers pay more for their road use, through a higher gas tax. This would also help raise transit ridership, lowering its subsidy too.

    • TakeFive

      Roads are “subsidized” by citizen taxpayers by preference and choice ie. their vote. They’ve also voted the same for transit. RTD’s one percent sales tax is indeed a healthy subsidy.

      The topic being transit fares I’m all for more affordable rates.

  • Sarah

    Thank you! If we want folks to use transit, which benefits the entire society, it needs to be more attractive than driving.

  • TakeFive

    I was surprised that someone who lives in GVR would pay $180 per month or $171 for a monthly pass to work downtown..

  • jmfay

    Why arent you talking about ecopasses? Those people lucky enough to get them are paying a fraction of what everyone else pays. That includes less than a disabled / 6-19 / medicare people pay which is 50 % off.

    A Denver employee; living in GVR from your example above; will pay $45 for a regional pass which costs everyone else $171 / 85. Do you think thats right?

    Auraria students get this as well as CU and other colleges. Numerous businesses also offer this though we doubt all are as attractive as Denver!

    If eco passes werent offered so cheap; the other fares could be less!

    • MT

      Or offer the ecopass prices to everyone.

      • jmfay

        They would go broke it they did that.

        • MT

          Or increase the number of passes sold, bringing in more revenue, increasing ridership, allowing increases in service, which would increase ridership and bring in more revenue.

    • mckillio

      While there’s some merit to what you’re saying, I believe that the Eco Pass is a 20% discount for businesses and then those businesses can choose to pay for part of their employee’s pass. My company doesn’t have enough employees that use RTD, I believe it’s a 200 person minimum, but does get a 15% discount and then pays for 50% of the remainder for me, all pre-income tax.

      If eco passes didn’t exist, it’s *possible* that even fewer people would use RTD and that the subsidy to fare coverage would get out of whack, requiring an increase in fares to make up the difference.

      • jmfay

        Auraria students also pay a small fraction of the cost of the eco pass. We doubt they are the only one paying this cheap of a rate so why is this?

        Maybe they will and maybe they wont. Parking costs alot of money so if that is a factor; people will take the bus / train.

        That discount for you is also part of your pay packet. The rest of us have to find the cost of the pass every month and when you are on a fixed income; that price is a huge factor.

  • Walter Crunch

    With the new election, it’s clear some rtd board members want rtd to shrink

  • deadindenver

    Gas is cheap, it’s been cheap for a while now. Domestic oil production has increased dramatically in the last decade, which barring a war or big natural calamity will likely keep gas relatively cheap for the next decade. This keeps the cost gap between driving & RTD narrow, when that happens the perceived convenience of driving wins out.

    A possible solution would be to eliminate the 1% RTD general sales tax in the metro area and replace it with a gas tax that provides RTD the same revenue. I’m not going to spend the time for this post to figure out what the gas tax would have to be to do that but because it would be gas only not a general sales tax it would have to be substantially more than 1%. This would increase the cost of driving versus taking RTD, giving a greater incentive for RTD over driving.

  • TakeFive

    WMATA Update: On July 1st, bus fares will go up $.25 to $2.00

    WASHINGTON — Metro plans to raise fares across the board and cut scheduled service on all rail lines at rush hour, beginning around July 1.

    http://wtop.com/tracking-metro-24-7/2017/03/metro-budget-agreement-raises-fares-cuts-rush-hour-service-saves-bus-lines/slide/1/

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