RTD Board Members Want a Better Fare Pass Program. Will They Rock the Boat to Get It?

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

Several members of the RTD Board of Directors are concerned that changes to the agency’s fare pass program might adversely affect the agency’s budget. Only District L Director Lorraine Anderson, however, has hinted at going after additional funds to make ends meet.

The RTD Pass Program Working Group is tasked with making the agency’s complicated bulk transit pass program fairer without spending one additional cent. The goal is to make transit more accessible for low-income residents and young people, but without more resources, it could lead to less ridership from other groups and dent RTD’s revenue.

Discount bulk passes are currently available for companies, city governments, and colleges to purchase for their employees and students. Incentives are harder to come by for low-income residents and kids who lack connection to larger institutions.

Within RTD’s current budget constraints, adding an income-based pass and a youth pass would cut into its business and college EcoPass programs, which are stable sources of ridership and revenue.

“That really will undermine, in my mind, our ability to provide services,” District O Director Charles Sisk told the Board Tuesday at its weekly meeting. “I think that eviscerates, in many ways, RTD’s ability to provide services, not only for EcoPass (customers) but also for the people that are less fortunate.”

Sisk has a point about tradeoffs, but he and the rest of the RTD Board, not to mention RTD General Manager and CEO Dave Genova, chose not to support a bill that would raise $10 million in state funds that could pay for a low-income pass program.

The Colorado Fiscal Institute presented the bill [PDF] during a legislative committee at the Capitol last month. Thirteen people — most of whom rely on transit — told state senators and representatives that they support the bill. Just one person, a lobbyist for the Colorado Retailers Council, spoke against it.

“If you think it is a public benefit, then the public needs to pay for it,” District L Director Lorraine Anderson said. “I think this is a legislature issue and a United States Congress issue. It is not RTD.”

The measure could still reach the floor of the legislature during the 2018 session. That means RTD could throw its weight behind the new funding stream. Anderson, who was calling in on speaker phone, did not say whether she was referring to that specific bill.

The 26-person working group, which includes heavy hitters from the business sector, housing and transit advocates, transportation planners, educators, and government officials, has been meeting since March to come to a consensus. Board members have not participated in these meetings, but are now looking to play a more hands-on role.

“I think it’s appropriate that the board have an opportunity, to the extent that we might see the need for a mid-course correction, to do that,” District H Director Doug Tisdale said.

The working group is expected to make its recommendations in the first quarter of 2018, at which point the Board will vote on changes to the bulk pass programs.

  • Elayna McCall

    During my time working at CDOT I noticed that the majority of city and state government workers that have free Ecopasses don’t actually use them. A lot of people drive alone. Could the board potentially ask these workers if they would consider transfering their pass to someone that would actually use it?

  • Cat

    Hmmm… so basically RTD thinks that low income riders need to pay full price in order to cover the costs of discounts given to companies, governments and colleges? Pardon my French, but that’s total horse puckey! And don’t even get me started on their failure to support the funding bill.

    You know, the thing I never hear discussed when people talk about low-income riders is how, in general, the sorts of rides they are taking put much less stress on the system than those who are commuting with eco-passes and the like. I would love to see a study done on this, but I would bet money that the average low-income rider is taking a lot of very short trips… under a mile or two. I’m talking about kids getting to school or people getting to the grocery store. The fare zones totally fail to capture this important distinction. So, perhaps rather than offering discounted fares based on income, RTD should consider a micro-fare price for trips under 2 miles. Seems like that could put the “fair” back in the “fares” if you know what I mean.

  • TakeFive

    Did you intend for links 2&3 to be the same?

    “If you think it is a public benefit, then the public needs to pay for it,” District L Director Lorraine Anderson said. “I think this is a legislature issue and a United States Congress issue. It is not RTD.”

    That is very strange but strange can happen when people speak before they think.

    While it never hurts to ask and while I can appreciate the creativity of a set-off against what they deem to be unneeded or excessive “vendors credit” I’ll guess it’s waaay too convoluted for the legislature to ever buy into. If, in fact, vendors could get by with less I’ll assume the legislature would throw that found savings into the General Pot to be allocated against the myriad state priorities.

    I’m not against better access for low-income residents and young people but this is an RTD/district issue or a cause for non-profit agencies and not the legislature.

  • TakeFive

    Setting the record straight, at least for myself.

    But RTD only expects to get 11.1 percent of its total funding from fares this year.

    For whatever reason I only now clicked on the link in that piece. http://www.rtd-denver.com/documents/meeting-1-march-13-presentation.pdf Farebox recovery ratio is a common industry reference for transit agencies. Per Wikipedia:

    The farebox recovery ratio (also called fare recovery ratio, fare recovery rate or other terms) of a passenger transportation system is the fraction of operating expenses which are met by the fares paid by passengers. It is computed by dividing the system’s total fare revenue by its total operating expenses.

    According to the linked pie charts that would make RTD’s farebox recovery rate about 21.5%.

    • TakeFive

      I guess I could add why this is relevant. Fare recovery ratios for a few peer cities would be King County (Seattle) at 31%; Portland TriMet at 27.5%; Las Vegas RTC a little over 50%; Twin Cities at about 33% (which also includes advertising).

      If RTD’s Fare Recovery could be boosted to only 25% of operating expenses that would add $22 million. On the flip side if RTD’s existing fare revenue were 25% of operating expenses then expenses would need be reduced to $538 million from the current $626 million.

      No wonder RTD has budget issues.

  • jmfay

    The eco, college, and other passes going to large companies , denver, etc pay considerably less than a qualified disabled, 6 to 19 or medicare patients. Is that really fair to everyone else who needs to use rtd? What bothers us is when the fares went up in 2016, the local users paid 25 % more for the disabled or full fair users. The other passes went up a little, stayed the same or got severely reduced in the case of regional fares. How is that fair and then they say they cant afford an income based pass? Not true.

  • R. C. Munson

    David– Excuse my low aptitude, but I cannot find your email address. May I have it so I can send you a draft of my article on Denver Union Station ? I will appreciate a collegial critique. Thanks.

    • David Sachs

      david[at]streetsblog.org

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