Meet RTD District E Candidate Claudia Folska, a Transit Rider for Life

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’ll publish 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: Claudia Folska. Folska is the incumbent representing District E, which covers parts of Denver south of East Colfax Avenue, parts of Aurora, Centennial, and unincorporated Arapahoe County. Her opponent is JM (Maria J) Fay.

  • Most used RTD route: E, F, and H lines and the 27 bus
  • Day job: Owner, Virtual Vanguard production company
  • Lives in: Southmoor
  • Website

Why are you running for reelection?

I guess it’s the same reason I ran in the first place. And that really had to do with me feeling like I had a contribution to make to the continued growth and expansion of the largest investment in a multi-modal transportation system ever in America [FasTracks]. And the reason I felt I had a contribution to make is because I’m blind and permanently transit-dependent. I have grown up on transit my whole life. I moved from Southern California to Denver when my daughter was three because of RTD.

What makes the system so great?

For me it’s the customer experience. I’ve never had a rude bus driver or a rude train operator. I find the people on the bus or the train to be delightful. In 2003 I learned that, to get my PhD, I had to go to CU Boulder. I hadn’t even been to Boulder. It was a bit overwhelming and I thought, how could I get there on public transit, and be able to take care of my kid? It was really kind of devastating. But I called RTD and they really talked me through it in such a kind, nice way, I felt like I could do this. The trip was long, but it wasn’t bad. The system is very legible to me. It became so comfortable to me. I have a groove.

What are RTD’s shortfalls?

I really think there are two challenges that RTD faces: It’s a pretty big organization, so making change is difficult. Having an idea and actually getting it implemented takes time. So for me the frustration is time. It’s not that people are gonna say no, no, no all the time, but finding a mechanism to bring these ideas to fruition —  I have a lot, and I think they’re brilliant, but that’s me. That doesn’t mean everybody else does.

And the other thing is, I’m one board member out of 15. So a lot of the innovative ideas that board members can bring to the table, or even citizens, you’ve got this board of directors who may or may not need to vote on it. That’s a challenge because sometimes they have their personal agenda — either because they like you, or they don’t like you, or because it doesn’t fit for what they want in their district, or there’s a conflict.

Our funding is sales tax based, so it goes up and down depending on the economy, and that’s a challenge too.

What’s an example of a “brilliant” idea you’ve had?

It was an art contest called “I love my RTD.” And I wanted to pilot that in Cherry Creek and Aurora Public Schools. In 2010 I brought that to the board, and they were like, no, no, no, no, no. And when I got elected I was like yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So in 2013 and I was pushing it and at the end of 2014 it finally happened. So you see how long it took. It’s a simple little art contest, but we had 100 percent engagement with both school districts and all middle school art students, which is remarkable.

How exactly does an art contest help the transit system?

The art contest was voted on by the community through the RTD website. So it engaged people. We had, in one week, 57,763 people vote on the art. The winners of the art contest got their art wrapped on the bus. And those kids, and those families, and those teachers, they built communities through that bus, and now they want to ride it.

Screen Shot 2016-10-20 at 9.34.39 AM
The boundaries of District E. Map: RTD

It’s been many years since RTD began working on it and Denverites still don’t have a modern fare payment system. What’s going on with smart card?

I think we’re fed up with [the contractor] Xerox, and we’re frustrated. We’re looking to fully implement the smart card, and it will be great when it happens, but it’s really, I’d say, a failure of Xerox to deliver. Why the board over the years allowed this to continue is beyond me. Are we actually going to earn $28 million from smart cards over a period of time, to say it was well worth it, as technology changes so rapidly? How are we gonna keep up with it? We have not seen the deliverables and in my opinion, Xerox needs to pay us the $28 million back. I think they’re a failure.

Do you think RTD’s role includes growing ridership by getting more people out of their vehicles?

RTD is a transportation option. My effort, like that art contest, was to grow the rider. My intention is to grow them from young people when they’re open-minded. I think it’s a very big lift to think that you can, in a broadly suburban, car-oriented place, drag people out of their cars. Because they have so many things they need to do — dropping their kid here, dropping their kid there. The way our district is really built, transit is really great in the urban core. Things are vertical, you have high density, but could you imagine shopping at Costco down in Park Meadows and bringing your toilet paper on the light rail? Or even getting it from Costco to the light rail at Lincoln Station?

Actually I can imagine taking groceries on the light rail because it’s done in other cities. Why not here?

I think we have a role at the table in partnership with municipalities to make that possible, if that’s what people want. And they need to better understand real walkability. So I even changed the name from transit-oriented development to pedestrian-oriented development, and I wrote a book about it. Because when we put the person first, as a pedestrian, now you’re thinking, as a planner, as a designer, as an architect, about walkability, not drivability. Where do I put my car? A car is not part of the equation.

What are specific issues facing District E?

Hampden Boulevard is a nightmare to cross. Parker is another nightmare to cross. I often say, let’s just blindfold the City Council and send them walking across it, and we’ll see some fast change. But nobody’s taking me up on the offer. Southmoor is a failure light rail station. And now you have this senior housing on the north side of Hampden, and supposedly this is walkable, and it’s just impossible. We partner with our local jurisdictions, our council people, or CDOT people, to find ways to make a collaborative investment in making things more walkable, and I think you’re gonna see some beautiful changes in that area.

Why are you better than your opponent to deal with these issues?

I can’t say that I’m better than anybody. I can say why I’m great at what I do. And I’m great at what I do because I love what I do. My life depends on good, affordable, efficient transportation. I can’t be me without it. So I have that personal relationship with the entire system, from the para-transit part all the way to the buses and the trains and the taxis — I use every bit of it.