RTD Board Advances Massive Fare Pass Restructuring with Discounts for Riders in Need

How will the transit agency ease the burden on bus and train riders while increasing ridership and revenue? It's complicated.

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

The Regional Transportation District Board of Directors advanced a suite of new fare passes late Tuesday, including a 40 percent discount for riders in need and a 70 percent discount for kids and teenagers. Board members are expected to officially approve the package with a final vote next week.

Nine elected officials voted in favor of the overhaul during the Financial Administration and Audit Committee. Six voted against. Zero thought the new fare structure was perfect.

“Any concerns — substantive, meaningful, real concerns — may be addressed and resolved at any point in time in the future,” said RTD Board Chair Doug Tisdale, who voted for the package. “But we must start somewhere. We need to put a stake in the ground. We need to move forward.”

By 2021, ridership would increase after an initial dip, according to RTD projections. But the new fare structure is somewhat complicated.

Trip costs will vary even more by income, age, and where you’re going — and also by how you pay. Low-income riders and “youth” age six to 19 can only use the new discounts with a MyRide card or with mobile tickets, for example, not with cash — but they get a 10-ride book of paper tickets through one of RTD’s nonprofit partners. Riders who take advantage of the income-based pass won’t have access to monthly passes.

“The only thing that bothers me about the fare system is that it’s incredibly complicated,” said District O Director Bob Broom. “If somebody walks up to me and says, ‘What does it cost to ride on RTD?’ the only honest answer you can give them is, ‘It depends.'”

A standard single fare will run you 20 cents more if you pay with cash, as opposed to if you pay with the MyRide card. That move incentivizes the quicker, easier payment method. But you (still) won’t be able to buy a single fare on your smartphone — just a day pass, at least for now.

The transit agency will fund the new discounts, in part, by raising fares in 2019. That’s a separate process — and a jagged pill given the agency’s painful service cuts. The standard local fare will likely rise to $3, up from $2.60 ($2.80 on a MyRide card). Access-a-ride fares would also go up.

At least one thing has been streamlined: Forget about the one-way fare and the transfers that come with it. It’s being replaced with a pass that lets people take unlimited rides within a three-hour window, in any direction.

Got it? Kind of? Cue the charts:

Image: RTD
Image: RTD

Fairer fares for riders in-need

Buses and trains are a lifeline for riders. That’s the basis for a more equitable fare in an increasingly expensive region.

People who live at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for RTD’s new “low-income” fare pass. That means a family of four making $46,435 or less a year would qualify. So would someone making $22,459 or less.

This pass will eventually replace a longstanding RTD program that relies on nonprofits to verify incomes and hand out 50 percent discount passes. RTD capped that program at $8.6 million. The new, in-house version will be open to everyone who qualifies.

Here’s what those residents will pay, starting in 2019:

Image: RTD
Image: RTD

Those discounts won’t start until next July, though, while the fare hikes could start as early as January 1. That gap worries Jenee Donelson, who has been fighting for a 50 percent income-based fare — and against service cuts — as a transit organizer with the Rocky Mountain Bus Rider’s Union and 9to5 Colorado. She’s also pushed the agency seek more funding instead of just redistributing the money it has.

“They need to start looking at alternative sources of revenue that’s not hitting the pockets of bus riders,” Donelson said. “This isn’t okay. They’re not factoring in the dropped bus runs, they’re not factoring in the amount of services that they’ve discontinued in neighborhoods that actually need this service.”

Everything can be tweaked down the line, said Michael Washington, RTD’s transit equity manager, who led the year-plus process.

“Ultimately my real hope is that the community is appreciative of the work that we’ve done, and that it actually works for them, and that they acknowledge this is a step in the process,” Washington said. “It’s not perfect, but this is a start for us.”

The kids menu

RTD staffers nixed a perk that would have given kids 12 and under free bus and train rides, though the Pass Program Working Group, a 25-member team tasked with hammering out a new fare package, recommended it. So the board voted on a package without that benefit. (Kids five and younger ride free with an adult.)

Here’s what kids and teenagers will pay:

youth pass
Image: RTD

Paratransit riders will pay more

Access-a-Ride, RTD’s door-to-door service for people with disabilities, is the agency’s most expensive service to operate. Starting next year, people will pay more to ride, even though many of them are on fixed incomes.

“I wish we didn’t have to change it, but the fact is they’re paying $63 a trip [to operate Access-a-Ride] and we have to contribute somehow,” said Jaime Lewis, who uses a wheelchair. “They could’ve raised it to $6 — it could have been doubled — so I think there was a compromise there.”

Lewis, who said he doesn’t speak for the disability community, predicted “a small backlash” but felt other Access-a-Ride riders would understand once they saw “the bigger picture.”

Here are the new Access-a-Ride rates:

Screen Shot 2018-09-12 at 9.02.03 AM
Image: RTD

Businesses, academia will pay for what they use

RTD will change the price of EcoPass, used by employees of local companies and neighborhood groups, and CollegePass, used by students. Those riders will pay for passes based on how much they use the system, which will help fund new discounts.

Currently business owners and academic institutions negotiate bulk contracts with RTD. Some pay too much for the amount of stress they put on the system, some pay too little, Washington said.

How board members voted

Directors Jeff Walker, Kate Williams, Paul Solano, Lorraine Anderson, Charles Sisk, Judy Lubow, Bonnie “Ernest” Archuleta, Tisdale and Broom voted for the package in committee.

Directors Larry Hoy, Ken Mihalik, Natalie Menten, Barbara Deadwyler, Peggy Catlin, and Claudia Folska voted against the new fare package.

The final vote is next Tuesday.