Legislators Side Against Funding Discount RTD Fares Before Session Starts

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

State legislators rejected a bill Thursday that would fund discount RTD passes for Coloradans who cannot afford the standard fare. The bill can still be brought up during the 2018 legislative session but this preliminary vote bodes poorly for its chances.

The proposed bill, authored by the Colorado Fiscal Institute, would raise $10 million annually for half-price transit passes for poor residents [PDF]. Any household making less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level ($36,900 for a family of four) would qualify.

Funds for discount passes would have come from lowering the “vendors credit” that lets retailers retain some sales tax money to offset the cost of collecting it. In the RTD tax district, the vendors credit accounts for $20 million annually, according to CFI. Capping the credit available to individual vendors at $3,333 would only affect the 1.2 percent of businesses that each do more than $10 million in sales annually — and free up $10 million for the RTD discount fares program.

On Thursday, 13 people spoke in favor of the bill at a meeting of the Transportation Legislation Review Committee, a group of state senators and representatives that accelerates bills through both houses.

“For me [transit] is one of the few ways I can travel from point A to B. It is vital that it be affordable and accessible to my community as possible,” said Jeannie Chase, who uses a wheelchair. “Your income should not be a limiting factor in your ability to travel throughout the city for basic needs.”

“Reduced transit costs ultimately allow individuals to be able to access good-paying jobs and to be able to move from a dishwasher in a hotel to general manager,” said Deyanira Zavala with Mile High Connects. “But if they are not able to ultimately achieve those career goals, we know that they are going move out of the Denver metro area and potentially out of Colorado looking for more affordable places to live.”

Only one person spoke against the bill — Chris Howes, a lobbyist for the Colorado Retailers Council.

The committee nevertheless voted 10-6 against it, with two members absent. Any legislator can still bring the bill forward during the 2018 session.

RTD did not take a position on the bill. A spokesperson said the agency is developing strategies to provide more transit passes to more people at a lower cost, and won’t take sides on related legislation until that process is complete. Some legislators voted against the bill because they did not want to step on RTD’s toes.

“I do feel that because there’s an elected RTD board and there is a stakeholder process going on right now that it may be more appropriate to wait to see the solution that they come up with before we dictate a solution to them,” said State Senator Lois Court.

But Jenee Donelson, a transit organizer with 9to5 Colorado, said RTD cannot afford to forgo any potential funding.

“I’ve been transit-dependent for seven years,” Donelson said. “Throughout those seven years I have heard RTD complain about not having funds to support an income-based bus pass and now we have gotten to the point where they have a resource to do so.”

The RTD working group on fare policy will make its recommendations to the Board of Directors early next year.