The Overhaul of RTD’s Fare Pass Programs, Explained

Callibrating current passes, nixing old options, and adding new ones might raise ridership, but not everyone is happy.

Foto: David Sachs
Foto: David Sachs

For the past year, a group of decision-makers in the transportation arena has been trying to increase access and ridership on the RTD transit system without digging any deeper into the underfunded agency’s pockets. The vehicle? An overhaul of RTD’s confusing and unfair fare pass programs.

The Pass Program Working Group’s deliberations ended Tuesday. The process required modeling countless combinations of fare discounts, price increases, and ridership projections, among other factors — and jockeying from affordable transit advocates, business groups, college reps, city transportation officials, educators, and RTD itself.

Here’s one scenario (out of hundreds) that gets at the complexity of this “Good Will Hunting” math problem: To create a pass for residents on a tight income, RTD needs more money, and that money has to come from somewhere. So what if RTD “right-sized” the CollegePass? In other words, got rid of discounts for universities that buy the passes in bulk, and charged them for the trips students and faculty actually take. It could work, but it could also cause disgruntled learning institutions to drop off, meaning ridership (and revenue) will suffer.

The group will pitch the recommendations (which might still change) to General Manager Dave Genova next week. Eventually the elected Board of Directors will have to vote on the package. Here’s a high-level view of where the dust settled today.

A 40 percent discount for low-income riders

Transit is a lifeline for a lot of people, but not everyone can afford to ride RTD, whose sprawling system costs riders more here than in peer cities.

DVYgnXBVQAEXzZJ.jpg large
Note: Seattle’s fare reflects a planned increase. Image: Four Nines Technologies

The group will recommend a 40 percent discount pass for people who live at 185 percent of the federal poverty level. So a family of four making about $46,000 or less would qualify, according to federal guidelines.

Transit advocates from Mile High Connects and 9to5 Colorado say a 50 percent discount is critical. The working group will include language in its recommendation that encourages RTD to provide a half-off fare at some unknown point, but the group won’t officially get behind it because they couldn’t make the numbers work.

Some kids ride free, others get a 70 percent discount

Riders age 12 and under would ride fare-free. Thirteen to 19-year-olds would get a pass good for 70 percent off the standard fare. Institutions including Denver Public Schools would administer the passes.

Calibrating the EcoPass and CollegePass

Some businesses get bargain basement deals and others get the shaft when they buy EcoPasses in bulk. That’s because different companies have employees using the system in different ways — some may use RTD everyday and travel 20 miles, while others may use it rarely and travel two miles, but the cost of the programs to employers don’t always align with reality.

Businesses that provide EcoPasses would pay RTD a fee that’s more in line with how employees are using the system, so the price will rise for some and fall for others in what some working group members have called “right-sizing.” The exact formula is still being discussed.

Under the new setup, RTD will base the CollegePass pricing on how people actually used the transit system in 2016 — an estimated 20 percent increase in price over three years. The risk here is that the University of Colorado, for instance, won’t be incentivized to provide passes as a benefit for students.

A system-wide fare hike?

Every few years RTD revisits its fare prices and considers adjusting them. The group assumed a 2019 local, one-way fare of $3 (a 40 cent increase) and a regional fare of $5.25 (a 75 cent increase) to make the math work.

Transit advocates from 9to5 Colorado say a fare increase undercuts any affordability in-need residents would get — but the recommendation could also very well keep the hike from going any higher a year from now.

A more flexible ride

Transfers as we know them will be gone. In their place, riders will have a three-hour window to travel in any direction for the price of a single-trip fare.

Will more people ride buses and trains as a result?

Despite the Denver region’s massive population growth and the opening of the A, B, and R lines, RTD’s ridership has dropped for four years straight. The new suite of transit passes — combined with other adjustments, like scrapping discounts for people who use the MyRide card and the 10-ride ticket book — could change that.

As RTD increases access for some groups, revenue is expected to grow. Image: Four Nines Technologies
As RTD increases access for some groups, revenue is expected to grow. Image: Four Nines Technologies

Ridership is a key metric for transit agencies because it reflects the quality of their service. The changes would see ridership grow 2 percent faster than if the pass program remained the same, according to the number crunchers, in part because of increased access for low-income riders. The new suite of passes would equate to an estimated 100 million annual boardings in 2019 and 104 million in 2021.

Those numbers are lower than RTD’s ridership in 2014 (about 105 million). They’re also based on a lot of ifs: Will enough colleges and businesses keep their contracts with RTD after prices change? Will businesses continue to offer transit passes as benefits? Will the N Line open on time?

Money left on the table?

One thing group members were ordered not to assume in their recommendations? Policy changes that would provide RTD with more funding, including a potential bill in the state legislature that would raise $10 million annually for affordable fares.

This article has been updated.

  • iBikeCommute

    We’ve heard rumors of Denver planning to buy up additional service from RTD like Boulder has been doing. What if instead, Denver subsidizes eco passes for low income residents and RTD uses the income to expand service in underserved areas. This could create a virtuous circle where more funding and more riders leads to increased service which then brings on board more riders…

  • TakeFive

    This is one topic that is easily above my comprehension ability. In fact just reading this gave me a headache. 🙂

  • Joel Noble

    Thanks for being there throughout the year’s worth of meetings, Dave, and for getting this piece out so quickly.

    One quibble: Not only were we not “ordered not to include” more funding options in our recommendation — we actually are including it. We aren’t ASSUMING additional funding options will materialize, so it’s not baked in to our core recommendations. But on the next page after the core recommendations, we do in fact go into a call for pursuing various avenues, and provide example avenues that may be promising (e.g. the vendor fee).

    As you can imagine, this diverse group would not have taken well to being “ordered,” and we weren’t.

  • David Rapp

    I’m terribly disappointed that the group could not make transit free for students (at least through High School). I’m confident the benefits would outweigh the costs.

  • JZ71

    KISS . . . EVERY discount requires that some other rider pay more. EVERY ride is already heavily subsidized by the taxpayers (to the tune of 80%+). EVERYONE believes that they deserve a “better deal” or a “free” ride. Eliminate ALL discounted pass programs and just provide daily, weekly and monthly pass options, at the same price, to everyone, along with a lower-cost, simplified base fare. If you don’t like it, there’s always Uber or Lyft, cycling or walking. This pass shell game hurts more riders than it helps . . .

    • jmfay

      Not for people with disabilities or on medicaid and who are also transit dependent. Many are also low income.

      Do you expect someone in a walker / crutches / with serious illnesses to walk? and no they cant afford lyft or uber.

      • JZ71

        Call-N-Ride is provided for people with severe disabilities, and is mandated by the ADA – it’s not going anywhere.

        Yes, being poor is hard. However, RTD is already heavily subsidized, which already makes it far more affordable than Uber, Lyft or a taxi. Society has a duty to make services available, it does not have a duty to make them “affordable” to every single person.

        • jmfay

          You have no idea how much access a ride costs do you? and people with disabilities still need to get to the bus stop.

          You also need a specific medical diagnonsis to use access a ride as well so not all disabled qualify.

          RTD has the ability to ask the legislature to charge a small fee for parking at the light rail stations. There is no bill though in the legislature to do this though there is one for an income based pass using some of the money from the sales tax fees large companies pay to the state.

          • JZ71

            I know very well what Access A Ride costs – it’s damn expensive to provide, and even at twice the normal fare, it’s far more subsidized than fixed-route service (I served 5 years on the RTD board). RTD has been trying to figure how (and if) to charge for perking, for decades. But if you want to go down that path, we can – in most cases, it costs less to provide “free” parking than it would cost to try and run fixed-route bus service in Denver’s sprawling suburbs. It’s cheaper to let people drive to a central location (the “last mile”) and create enough density to provide frequent service than it would cost to add more “little-used” bus routes.

            I’m also well aware that a significant minority of RTD’s patrons fall into the truly transit-dependent category, based on either income or disability, or both. My perspective is that by running (and growing) a robust transit network, RTD is trying hard to address the NEEDS of the transit dependent. How to PAY for it remains “challenging”. Taxpayers already pay for a significant portion (80%+) of the cost of every trip, so EVERY rider is getting a “pretty good deal”. Sure, many individuals and many organizations continue to put forward arguments for “special” treatment, but, as the current discussion illustrates, once you go down that road, you just end up having to pick “winners” and “losers”.

            Personally, I’m a big believer in KISS. The more you use RTD, the more you already benefit from the existing taxpayer subsidies. Adding discounts on top of that just penalizes other riders and does nothing to improve service. And since ANY other alternative (short of walking or biking) would be significantly more expensive, per trip (using uber, lyft, a taxi or a personal vehicle), I believe that RTD is already doing more to help low income and disabled riders than any other entity. But/and since I’m no longer on the board, my opinion is just that – it carries no more weight than yours or any other citizen’s!

          • TakeFive

            Cheers to KISS

  • jmfay

    How is it people with disabilities / medicaid people were left out of this mix? Many of these people are transit dependent and also low income. They already pay 50 % off but when the fares go up; their fares go up too. It seems to be more important to help 6 to 19 years old then adults who have in many cases no other way to get around.

    • JZ71

      To start with, every rider already “gets 80%+ off”, because the taxpayer is paying that part. The existing 50% discount brings that up to “90%+ off”. Do you walk into King Soopers and expect a 90% discount just because you’re poor? From Denver Water? I get it, life’s not fair and being poor sucks, but it takes money to run a transit system, and no rider “deserves” a free ride!

  • jmfay

    RTD could have asked the legislature to allow them to charge a small fee for parking at their lots for those who drive to the light rail as opposed to sticking transit dependent people yet again.

  • Commentperson47372649

    That chart at the top should be seen as a huge black mark on RTD. Why does RTD fail so hard compared to transit agencies from these other major metros?

    • TakeFive

      It’s complicated but many transit agencies have much better recapture rates ie fare revenue. Las Vegas RTC, for example has over 50% recapture while RTD has ~20%; that makes a yuge difference. Presently RTD is not rolling in the dough. 🙂

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