RTD Board Votes to Streamline and Expand Discounts for Low-Income Riders

The RTD Board of Directors voted to make transit more accessible to more people Tuesday night. Photo: David Sachs

More than a dozen people testified at the RTD Board of Directors meeting Tuesday night in support of changes that should expand the reach of a low-cost pass program for low-income transit riders.

The changes include measures to streamline a program that allows nonprofit organizations to buy discounted bus and rail tickets in bulk, and distribute them to their clients at reduced rates — between 25 and 60 percent of the face value. Right now the process of acquiring discount passes involves hacking through a lot of red tape, making it hard for some nonprofits and their clients to participate. The cumbersome requirements deter some organizations altogether, resulting in fewer low-income riders receiving the benefit.

Starting January 1, the low-income discount will be a flat 50 percent across the board, nonprofits will be able to buy more tickets, and RTD will require fewer reporting requirements. The idea is that a nimbler program will allow more nonprofits to join in, and more low-income riders will be served.

The board voted 9-2 to adjust the program (four directors were absent), but not before debating whether RTD’s role is strictly for transportation, or if it has a deeper responsibility to the public.

Directors Larry Hoy and Tina Francone, who voted against the measure, argued that RTD can’t afford the discount pass program, nor is it the agency’s place to provide it.

“I’m sympathetic to those people, I understand the plight of those people… but I can tell you I do not believe that RTD is a social agency,” said Director Larry Hoy, who represents some of Denver’s northern suburbs. “It is not our responsibility for individual household financial dilemmas.”

By selling tickets and passes to nonprofits in 2014, RTD brought in $2.5 million, according to an agency report. Staffers estimate the equivalent annual revenue after the changes will be around $3.4 million. Hoy and Francone view that money in terms of what RTD could have brought in had it sold the fares at full price.

Others believe the discount incentivizes people to ride in the first place. That’s a goal of the EcoPass program, which gives discounts to businesses and colleges that buy RTD passes in bulk. If there’s a robust discount program for employees and students, why not for low-income families?

“We’re providing pretty steep discounts for other revenues,” said Director Tom Tobiassen, who represents east Denver and parts of Aurora. “This particular program is a very small group of people that we’re continuing to provide, and it’s a very similar discount to other riders, in fact, lots of other riders. So if we look at the nuts and bolts of how this is implemented, we can probably justify this as a savings, similar to how we justify savings with other programs. I think this is a fairness thing, not a giveaway.”

The low-income discount program currently serves about 8.6 percent of RTD’s low-income riders, according to Anne Garcia, chief financial and operating officer at the Rose Community Foundation. Garcia’s foundation was part of a nonprofit coalition led by Mile High Connects that fought for the changes. “Even with this expansion, it will continue to only serve a fraction,” Garcia said.

Rose and other nonprofits see the new policy as a small win. Their ultimate goal is for RTD to halve fares for every person who makes 150 percent of the federal poverty level or less — about $35,000 for a family of four. RTD has not made any room for such a program in their 2016 budget, which is up for a vote in November.

“We keep hearing about affordability, but I haven’t heard anything about a timeline for an income-based pass,” said Margaret Gomez, a community organizer with 9to5 Colorado, which advocates for working women. “There seems to be a lot of momentum about getting the new light rail lines built, and about raising fares, but we are in the exact same place we were when you decided to increase those fares.”