Denver’s New Bus and Train Fares Are the Most Expensive in the Nation

Passengers queue for the Boulder Express at Union Station. Photo: RTD.
Passengers queue for the Boulder Express at Union Station. Photo: RTD.

Today, the Regional Transit District raised prices for bus and train tickets, making Denver the most expensive place to ride transit when compared to more than a dozen cities of similar size or larger.

RTD’s new adult fare, which now costs $3, up from $2.60, is more than twice the price of bus and train tickets in Austin and Houston, which go for $1.25. Denver’s fares will also hit riders’ wallets harder than in New York and San Francisco, where tickets are less expensive and the cost of living is higher.

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RTD’s regional fares will also increase, from $4.50 to $5.25, and a ride on the A-Line to the airport will jump from $9 to $10.50.

The price hike arrives after the agency cut service in 2018 and planned more cuts to bus service in 2019. Service cuts translate to buses and trains arriving less frequently, which means riders are less likely to use transit, often hopping into a car instead.

But RTD hopes that revamped discount programs will help to reverse four straight years of declining ridership.

Starting today, RTD will offer a 70 percent discount to all young people between six and 19 years of age. Previously they received a price cut of 50 percent and had to show proof of enrollment in school.

For low-income Coloradoans, a new discount program will launch later this year. It cuts fares 40 percent for those who live at 185 percent of the federal poverty level. (A family of four making about $46,000 or less would qualify, according to federal guidelines.)

RTD considered a more substantial discount for low-income riders, which totaled 50 percent, but in 2017 state legislators rejected a bill that would have provided the agency with $10 million to fund it.

Passenger fares made up 14 percent of RTD’s $900 million budget in 2017, while more than 60 percent of its funding came from sales taxes, according to the agency’s most recent annual report.

Despite the higher prices, riders will see one new benefit from the new fares: The direction you travel no longer matters. Now a cash fare is valid for three hours, even if you make a round trip.

For more information on the new fare structure, see RTD’s website: 2019 Fare Changes.

An earlier version of this story misstated the price of a ticket on the A-Line train to the airport. The new fare is $10.50, not $10.

  • JZ71

    Comparing apples and oranges. RTD offers more discounts than many other systems, so the “list price” is going to be higher, plus RTD offers free transfers and, as noted, the base fare is good for three hours of travel, easily a round trip.

    • Lucy Martin

      people were using a base fare for two trips, anyway, even though that wasn’t supposed to be the way the system worked. I am glad they are giving discounts to lower income people. That is long overdue. But they should seriously be thinking how to attract more riders across the income spectrum, by providing better service so people don’t feel they need to take a Lyft or Uber.

      • JZ71

        Define “better service”. The biggest argument against using public transit is that it takes too damn long to get to where you want to go. Even if RTD could afford to offer more frequent service, more riders would just mean more stopping, making for longer trip times, not shorter. People prefer Uber and Lyft because they provide direct, non-stop service, from Point A to Point B; something that RTD will never be able to do.

        • Lucy Martin

          Tabor.

          • JZ71

            Voters. Taxpayers are unwilling to raise taxes above what they can afford. RTD “could” ask for more tax dollars, but the chances of getting them are slim to none.

        • Gavin Prangley

          More riders would be spread across more buses if the system offered greater frequency. Don’t have data to back this up, but I’d imagine that the number of stops and the change in trip time would both be negligible if the system were more frequent overall.

          • It needs more frequency and more capillarity for masses to consider use.

  • iBikeCommute

    RTD collected 140 million in fares in 2017. So for the price of a couple of miles of highway, RTD could eliminate fares altogether. Imagine how transformational that would be for our transportation system.

    • TakeFive

      Haha… cute.

      The cost of CDOT’s I-25 Gap project will cost less than $20 million per mile. If Central 70 hadn’t been delayed and delayed it could have been built for two-thirds of the current cost. But some people have no qualms about delaying projects and wasting taxpayer money in the process.

    • Lakewood Ed

      $140 million plus inflation . . . year after year after year.

      • iBikeCommute

        And how much do we spend on highway maintenance and expansion…year after year.

        TakeFive knows if buses were free like most of our roads demand would skyrocket.

        • TakeFive

          Interesting point.

          But for most people who avoid riding buses it’s not an economic decision so even being free would only marginally increase demand.

          It’s also true that 100% of the people rely on and pay for roads. This same group also pays for 100% of transit capital costs and 75% of the operating costs. The 15% that use transit only cover 25% of the operating costs.

          • Gavin Prangley

            If cost = time, then the decision is economic.

          • TakeFive

            I meant economic as cost to ride but I’d agree that many choose not to ride buses because they take waaay too much time to get to where they want to go.

        • American Dreamer

          I agree. Lower the price and get more riders and more revenue. RTD is trying to sell a single million dollar ticket instead of a million one dollar tickets.

    • tomwest

      Free transit would increase demand, which means additional capacity would be needed, increasing costs.

      • iBikeCommute

        “Free transit would increase demand, which means additional capacity would be needed, increasing costs.”
        This is exactly the same concept as expanding free highways only transit results in a virtuous cycle, decreasing traffic while expanding highways creates a vicious circle only leading to more congestion.

        • tomwest

          I quite agree that it would be a good thing. I’m just highlighting that the costs associated of free transit would rise faster than inflation.
          (Also: if you provide additional service to serve extra demand, you’re increasing frequency… which then generates additional demand).

    • Shlabotnik

      Out of curiosity, what share of RTD’s operating budget is comprised of fares and how does this compare to other transit agencies? Unless the contribution of fares for the RTD is way smaller than the rest of the nation I don’t see why the fares should be so high?

  • EMB

    Despite the higher prices, riders will see one new benefit from the new fares: The direction you travel no longer matters. Now a cash fare is valid for three hours, even if you make a round trip.

    So… making the already-existing process official. Which is a good thing, but not worth 40 cents.

    Every employer offering free car parking should be offering free transit passes for employees. Every one of our arterial roads should have a dedicated bus lane and transit signal priority. Access to reliable and convenient automobile transportation shouldn’t require that every individual buy, maintain, and fuel a personal automobile, whether or not we want to do so, whether or not we’re even capable of driving safely every time they drive.

    • kim80

      Yeah. Great for derelicts. But anybody working is going to have to pay the fare twice. Coming and going.

  • localhost

    A Line is actually $10.50 now, not $10.

    • Andy Bosselman

      Thank you, the story has been edited to reflect the correct price.

  • TakeFive

    I’m thinking that 14% figure for fares is misleading as a part of the Total Budget. What I think makes more sense is to compare fares to total operating budget. Looking at page 96 would suggest that the fare recapture rate is ~25% which is respectable even if half of the recapture rate of the RTC for Las Vegas.

    • iBikeCommute

      What is CDOTs and DPW’s capture rate when it comes to road and highway operations?

      • TakeFive

        100% of the people rely on roads and help pay for roads. This same group also pays for 100% of transit capital costs and 75% of the operating costs. The 15% that use transit only cover 25% of the operating costs is all.

        • mckillio

          You’re ignoring the amount they also pay in sales taxes.

          • TakeFive

            Very true; transit riders I assume you mean… are also included among the 100% in the 1st and 2nd sentences which is where they would pay sales tax for RTD’s six-tenths percent and four-tenths percent for FasTracks. But that last sentence did confuse things so that was a very fair point to emphasize.

  • J L

    In Minneapolis the light rail fare between the Airport and downtown Minneapolis is $2.50 during peak hours (less during off-peak). I think that gets you three or fours hours of travel. RTD is gouging people along the front range. $10.50 to and from the Airport!!!

    • garbanzito

      worth noting downtown Minneapolis to airport is 11 miles via light rail, while Denver is 25 miles via heavy rail; i don’t have numbers, but also suspect the subsidy for the two city’s lines is significantly different

  • davebarnes

    This is good.
    Increased fares will cause more people to select RTD over other forms of transportation.

  • Camera_Shy

    $10.50 is similar to the 10.90Euros that Paris charges for the trip to CDG airport.

    I like the 3-hr flat rate idea, but only because I do not commute to my job on RTD.

    • Shlabotnik

      I don’t know, $10.5 from downtown to the airport on public transportation seems like a lot. In New York, it’s $2.75 Transit + $5.00 Air Train to JFK, in Chicago it’s $2.50 from downtown to O’hare, $5.00 from O’hare to downtown on the CTA, in Berlin it’s 3.30 euros from Schonefeld airport to the city center on Deutsche Bahn, in Barcelona it’s 4.60 from city center to airport on the regional train system, in Madrid it’s a special 5 euro subway fare to the Airport. These are some of the places I have visited recently. Yes the trip from downtown Denver to the airport is a bit longer, but for much of the journey it’s a train track in an empty field. I don’t get it.

      • Camera_Shy

        It may be market driven. How much is an uber, a taxi, how much is it to park, I’m not saying it’s justified, only that Denver is now similar to Paris. Is that a good thing? Is it correct? Is it a deal? I guess that depends on one’s point of view. Certainly some cities choose to set their prices differently, and even subsidize differently. I’m not arguing one way or the other.

        • Gavin Prangley

          Parking at the shuttle lots at DIA is $8/day. An uber without traffic will run ~$35 one way. The break even point for parking v. taking the train is 3 days’ travel, if you include both ways of travel on the A Line ($21 for the train vs. $24 to park).

          That driving 30 miles outside the city to park costs the same as taking the train is absurd, imo.

      • I understand. It is too expensive but Denver is a small city compared to the rest (I live in Denver). Consider the # of people that use public transportation as their main way of transportation vs in Denver. The Rail would need to have many more lines and many more stops for people to drop their vehicle so volume will never come because it will never reach the same distance and as many points. Also, compare density as well.

  • Chris Terry

    RTD sucks. I hate buses so much. Where is our commuter train to the north? Now you raise the price to the highest in the nation? For what? Terrible services? Lies? I will never ride your horrible buses again. EVER! If I did, it would cost me to get to and from work: $6 a day / $30 a week / $120 a month.

    • mckillio

      The N line is under construction. Or you could get a monthly pass…

    • You realize a car, with insurance, maintenance, and purchase cost factored in is probably more expensive.

      • Ben W

        I would venture to guess that most people in Denver already have a car for day to day activities plus travel to the mountains. RTD does not have an extensive or efficient (time/reliability) enough system to allow the average person to rely solely on it. The fare hikes push people who only want to use RTD for commuting to/from work to drive. It would cost me 10.50 a day now for a 10 mile ride (each way) on the light rail which takes as long if not longer than driving, even during rush hour.

      • The car is a sunk cost if you already have it. The only way to compare is total transportation costs of rail vs personal car. Driving to the mountains, and even to some areas not covered by the rail.

  • Bjorn

    $3 (or $2.80) is high for regular local bus trips. I would expect ridership to decline more sharply than the standard 30% fare elasticity quoted as the amount is on par with realistic user driving costs.

    The 2016 fare reforms are likely what threw the fare levels out of line. Predominantly peak-hour, peak direction regional and express fare trips (which are more expensive to service) were lowered when they were combined into a single zone (with some express trips becoming local fares) while cheaper-to-serve local trips were made more expensive.

    I’d lean towards setting the fare levels as such (X is a constant to be decided by revenue needs)
    Local daily: 2X
    Local one-way: X
    Express (as was the case back in 2016) daily: 4X
    Express one-way: 2X
    Bi-directional regional routes (FF, LD, etc) and airport service daily: 5X
    Bi-directional one-way: 3X
    Uni-directional regional routes (CV, ES, RX, P, etc) daily: 6X
    Uni-directional one-way: 4X

    • LBD

      Realistic user driving costs? My company pays for my gas card and even if it didn’t it only costs $20 to fill up my tank of gas. That is in NO WAY comparable to 6 bucks of morning and evening travel per day.

  • Camera_Shy

    Also, IMO, it’s not a fair comparison to show SF Muni. The bay area has 9 counties and they each have their own transit system. RTD is a regional transit system that serves many counties.

    • Camera_Shy

      Also, SFMuni adult fare is only good for 90 minutes, vs Denver which is 3 hours (twice as long).

  • American Dreamer

    I rode the A line from DIA to Fitzsimmons and then the N line to Parker & 225. At the busiest moment, there were 3 passengers. A line segment had one other person. By the way, why is the A line train set on the track backwards? All the seats face away from the mountains and city skyline?

  • tomwest

    $3 cash fare is expensive in the USA, but normal in Canada.

  • Shlabotnik

    I am curious to know whether there is a policy document that describes the RTD’s goals? Or perhaps something a bit more broad that addresses the Denver metro area’s mobility goals – something endorsed by politicians and/or the public ? I’m just trying to put this fare hike into perspective. I use RTD very seldomly so it’s not like complaining loudly, but I am quite dismayed by the high fares.

    • Gavin Prangley

      my flippant response – denver area mobility goals: everyone should buy a car

      my real response – RTD’s mission: “Meet our constituents’ present and future public transit needs by providing safe, clean, reliable, courteous, accessible, and cost-effective service throughout the District.” and DRCOG Metro Vision Plan

    • I live in Denver and the Rail reminds me of “El Tren Urbano” we have in Puerto Rico. Not enough capillarity for it to make sense and geographic density is lower than in major cities.

  • Hold your beer for NYC. Another fare hike is planned for March of this year.

  • LazyReader

    All the more reason to downscale operations and let private operators provide transit service.

  • LBD

    I used to live in London and Tokyo and I think that for Denver these prices are CRAZY. I could get zones 1-8 in London (all the way to the airport) for about 800 GBP per year on Oyster card. That’s still less expensive even with the exchange rate. Compare that to Denver $200 a month regional rate and i’m shocked! I can lease a new car for less than that a month and I have free parking.

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