Meet RTD District I Candidate Véronique Bellamy: Not a Fan of Public-Private Partnerships

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: Véronique Bellamy. Bellamy is running to represent District I, which covers Lafayette and parts of Broomfield, Erie, Longmont, unincorporated Adams County, and Boulder County. Her opponents are Lee Kemp and incumbent Judy Lubow.

  • Most used RTD route: LNX and Bolt buses, C and E light rail
  • Day job: Senior software architect for PhaseZero
  • Lives in: Longmont
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Why are you running?

I was engaged in a community forum with Judy Lubow, and her callous discussion with the people made me say, “There needs to be someone who can do a better job.” And since I’m an engineer and I’m not used to passing the buck, it falls upon me.

I’m a transit rider and an engineer. I think about things like transit on a deeper level. I’m a problem solver. I look at things and I try to fix things. I’m not a lawyer like Judy Lubow or a salesperson like Lee Kemp. And I think there’s a lot of room for RTD to improve.

That and the conversations in Longmont to secede from RTD. Basically, I think that some re-engineering and some refactoring are very important in order to keep RTD together.

What makes you the right person to solve RTD’s problems?

When you’re an engineer, you learn a lot about computer science, yeah, but I also learned a lot of things about creative problem solving — about looking at something and seeing how it can be improved. Whereas Lee Kemp and Judy Lubow, they have jobs that are basically about talking to people, convincing people, selling people. I’m not exactly that good at convincing people, though I am good at fixing problems. And the fact that I ride transit, I notice these problems a lot more.

What are RTD’s shortfalls?

If you have a problem, you don’t try to deny you have a problem. You don’t try to pretty it up. You say, “I have a problem. Let’s fix it.” I believe that there are a lot of business people at RTD. There’s nothing wrong with business if it makes sense. However, these public private partnerships, and a number of other different decisions like the smart card thing that RTD makes, are quite frankly idiotic. I’ve worked as a transit police officer in France with several different transit systems, and I swear, they’ve managed things a hell of a lot better.

But RTD usually hangs their hat on public-private partnerships.

Yeah and that’s a problem because public-private partnerships have been proven not to work in public transit. The U.S. 36 renovations — I don’t know enough about that to comment. But rail, specifically — the disastrous P3s in the London Underground, where Transport for London had to buy out both P3s. Not to mention the disastrous privatization of British rail, which led to many accidents, poor track maintenance, and ultimately the British taxpayer had to pick up the tab. Then we move over to Auckland, which is divided into many different zones for each of the private partners to collect their own fare, making a transit ride from the length of Denver to Longmont cost the equivalent of $17.50. And of course Vancouver, where bus riders will be paying for the Canada line, which was built for the Olympics.

Screen Shot 2016-10-26 at 10.28.47 AM
The geographic boundaries of District I. Map: RTD

What do you say to the idea that these partnerships are the only way to get things done without having all the money readily available?

I would say that that’s a poor excuse. If you’re cash strapped, putting Epsom salt in your gas tank instead of gasoline isn’t gonna help you much.

What’s the alternative solution?

I know it’s not a popular idea, but I’m gonna say it anyway. We need to buy out all the public-private partnerships and mitigate the damage. We need to implement an RTD-specific gas tax that’s applicable within the district, akin to a sales tax.

What’s your position on Northwest rail not happening in your district, despite residents paying for it through FasTracks?

Everyone is pissed about not getting the rail. When I was canvassing and getting signatures, that is the one thing I heard about the most. “Where is the rail? Can you help us get the rail?” And my response was a tepid, “I will do my best.” Because on a 15-member board that’s all you really can do. I would be one voice out of 15 — maybe a loud and annoying voice, but still just one voice. That’s the most important thing and people are ticked that they’re paying this extra sales tax, paying, paying, paying from the nose and not seeing any benefit.

Would you be okay with true bus rapid transit instead?

I don’t think so. I really think a lot of people in Longmont want the rail. They’re so married to the idea of rail, and who can blame them? Rail has a distinct advantage over buses, and with RTD engaging in BRT-creep, they’re not selling the benefits of BRT. If people see BRT as just another vehicle that travels with other vehicles on the highway, then all the problems with the old buses are still there. Especially when the ticket vending machines don’t work and there’s no dedicated lane.

What other issues are facing District I?

People are also kind of mad that buses don’t run as late as they should, and the bus routes look like they were drawn by a meth addict. That’s one thing I want to do when I’m in office — put the buses on a grid. I want to do what they did in Houston.

Are fares affordable in your opinion?

I believe that RTD should be doing a lot more to meet in the middle with these municipalities that are trying to implement interesting transit options like free fares. I want more ridership, so naturally I agree with more people having Ecopasses. I want more people having the option or the freedom to go wherever they want on the system. However, the problem is, when the system doesn’t go where they want.

What can you do to change these things?

Ultimately it’s about bringing the local concerns to the board. It’s about putting the evidence forth, try to figure out if my colleagues are amenable to facts. If they are, then great, we can have a dialogue and try to meet in the middle. If they’re not amenable to facts — for example, the P3 things — then it’s more of an issue of naming and shaming, because I’m not gonna run for public office again. This is just so I can make RTD better. I don’t want to run for public office, and yet I’m doing it.

Outside of Denver, transit-oriented development isn’t as popular. People want trains but not density. What’s your take?

Considering how diverse my district is, some of them might not be okay with TOD. I’ve heard that Broomfield can be quite NIMBY, but I’ve also heard it can be quite YIMBY. Sometimes you need to act according to the old axiom that the democratically elected leader gets to make the autocratic decisions. And, ultimately, if we see that walkable neighborhoods are more healthy and more safe, and give people more opportunities and are more accessible for people with disabilities, then we need to make the hard decision in a NIMBY environment to say, “Yes, let’s do it,” and then let it take its course.

If we’re wrong and people don’t like it, then we’ll get voted out and ultimately we’ll be derided as the great Satan. If people do like it then people will applaud our political courage.

Stay tuned for more interviews from other RTD candidates, including Bellamy’s opponents.