Mayoral Candidate Kalyn Heffernan: The Streetsblog Interview

This is the a special addition to our series of interviews with candidates for Denver mayor in the May 7, 2019 municipal election. Editor Andy Bosselman conducted and condensed each interview.

Several members of the Streetsblog Denver board of directors advised Bosselman in choosing the candidates and the subject matter covered. Kalyn Heffernan was not included in our original set of interviews, but after a small uproar on Twitter we reconsidered. 

Other interviews include: Sen. Penfield TateJamie Giellis and Dr. Lisa Calderón and Mayor Michael Hancock.

Heffernan is, in her own words, an artist, freedom fighter, a wheelchair user and a Denver kid. Through the nonprofit Youth on Record, she teaches music production “through a social justice lens” at an alternative high school in Swansea. She has toured the world with her rap group Wheelchair Sports Camp

Of the five candidates interviewed, Heffernan was the only regular transit rider. She used public transportation to get to and from the interview.

"I’m already the mayor, that’s why I jumped into the race. I’m already a very recognizable, known community person."
“I’m already the mayor, that’s why I jumped into the race. I’m already a very recognizable, known community person.” Photo: Andy Bosselman

Q: What can you do for Denver that the current mayor cannot?

A: I can overcome barriers a lot better because I have to every day, as somebody living with a disability in an inaccessible world. But also as an artist. I can creatively solve problems because that’s what we do all the time.

Q: What’s your vision for Denver’s transportation future?

A: I would like to see Denver have free, accessible public transportation for everybody.

Right now, we have the highest fares in the country. We have some of the worst service. I’m part of the group ADAPT that made our city the first accessible transit system in the country twelve years before the [Americans with Disabilities Act].

I think it’s pretty disappointing that … we’re still cutting stops, typically in neighborhoods with low-income and in communities of color.  I’ve seen public transportation red line through neighborhoods.

If you look at how services are being cut from the buses, and they’re being redistributed into light rail — into affluent neighborhoods — you have a harder time integrating communities.

Recently they closed [the Colfax 15 bus] at 1:20 in the morning, which is a time that most people are working. The 24 right now is a mess up there in Swansea.

The leadership within [the Regional Transportation District] is pretty disconnected from the communities they serve. Nobody in leadership roles ride the bus. The CFO makes three times as much as our governor.

Q: The mayor has proposed a new Department Transportation and Infrastructure. If voters approve that, it would allow the city to either create its own transportation agency more pay RTD more to supplement service. Of these two options, do you have an opinion on what the city should do?

A: Something’s gotta happen. I don’t think it’s a funding issue, either. Ridership has gone down, but so has service.

They have a really high turnover rate with drivers, because their schedules are really tough. They don’t get very good bathroom breaks. Their unions aren’t very strong.

There’s a lot of structural changes that I think need to be made within our public transportation [system]. If RTD’s not going to do it, then we as a city are responsible to [initiate] structural leadership changes [at RTD]. Or if they’re not going to abide or comply, then we’ll have to do our own thing that serves the people that need it most.

We’re living in a climate change kind of world. Our carbon footprint is only getting bigger. We’re not going to be able to keep expanding highways. If we had a more effective public transportation system, that everybody could ride — and that’s why I think it should be free — people would use less private cars and it would clear up a lot of parking problems, traffic problems.

Q: So you think that there’s a problem with the way RTD is structured, the way that the board of directors set up?

A: Yeah, I think that their leadership has not proven to serve the people. We got Shontel Lewis on the board this last election, and she’s a very big advocate. She rides the bus. But it’s going to take awhile to replace that top-heavy leadership structure.

It’s a lot easier to take Lyft and Uber, and that’s not an option for me. If I want Access-A-Ride,  I have to plan two days in advance and have a three-hour window to get where I need to go. Not to mention that five dollars each way. So you’re putting the burden on the community that’s in the most amount of poverty.  

Q: 73% of all trips in Denver are in single occupancy vehicles now. The city’s goal is to get that to 60% by next year, which is not going to happen. And 50% by 2030. How would you help the city meet that goal?

A: Public transportation.

More service. More frequent. More service to different parts of the city. And more affordability.

I’ve been studying up on cities that have free transportation. We could do [something] like a GO Bond. [We could charge] for parking at Park-N-Rides, because right now [people who park for free] pay the same. … That would increase funds. There are a lot of ways to do it, we just need to have the will and the leadership.

Q: About the Denveright plans, several of the candidates opposing the mayor say the plans should be put on hold until after the election. How do you feel about that?

A: I agree. I think the mayor is trying to do some really cool, innovative stuff before he gets reelected. The thing about Denveright is there’s no plan for how these things will be rolled out. It’s just general guidelines, which I think is like a great starting point.

But we also heard from a lot of communities, that they didn’t have the best amount of input with that. I know that, as somebody with a disability, accessing these town halls … they put them during the day, when people are working. It’s already so difficult, and it takes us so long to get places, that I would like to see the city make better efforts to meet people where they are to ask these important questions.

I’d like to see people with disabilities leading these discussions. We have the best vision for how to make things accessible because we have to deal with it every day. And not just vision, some people can’t see.

Q: In the Mayor’s Mobility Action Plan, he calls for about $2 billion to create a high-frequency transit network. Jamie Geillis calls for about $5 billion for new transportation. Do you have a plan, and a dollar amount, that you’d like to pursue?

A: There’s a couple things I think have to happen before we start spending money for our future and our growth.

I’m worried that we’re putting all this money in future plans for a city that’s no longer going to be accessible to people of color and people living in poverty.

Right now we are in a housing crisis. We have to make some fast emergency executive actions to get people stability. The Hispanic, Chicanx, Latinx community is being displaced at the fastest rate as any city in the whole country right now.

Q: What would you do, what are those emergency measures?

A: Housing for everyone. Utilizing the vacant spaces that we’re sitting on so that everybody has a place to live.

Q: Does that mean constructing new housing?

A: There’s actually enough vacant apartments in this city right now to house the entire state’s homeless population. And use some of the vacant city land to build housing. Whether that be tiny homes or [high-] density apartments.

Having these luxury condos that are sitting vacant: Rent to service providers at a much more affordable rate.

I’m looking at the more creative ways to use what we have. The money that the city’s making, and banking on us [becoming a] world-class city, isn’t actually trickling down to many of us. I’m nervous about making these big plans until we make sure that this city is inclusive and is for everyone.

I’d like to declare housing a human right. And take better accountability for how this city was colonized in the first place. I see all of this as history repeating itself. This is modern day colonization.

We get really tripped up with this money game, where we start to remove [ourselves from] the violence that’s actually happening. When people are displaced, and people are pushed out… we’re seeing more homeless people die than ever before. And that that’s a priority before I start putting numbers for [the Denveright plans].

I’d like to redistribute some of the city-owned land to provide wealth land ownership to the people that were removed from the city, including the Native Americans and the people that have been displaced. Redlined.

Q: Denver committed to the Vision Zero movement, which pledges to end all traffic fatalities by 2030. But in the last few years, traffic fatalities have gone up. According to the Denver Streets Partnership, making the needed changes to the streets would take 100 years to achieve at the current funding level $5 million per year. They say $40 million is needed to meet that goal. So where do you stand on Vision Zero?

A: I don’t stand on anything.

As a pedestrian, and as somebody who’s short, it is super dangerous.

We got rid of the Denver crosswalks, where you could cross diagonally [pedestrian scramble]. …  I’d like to bring back our Denver crosswalks because they’re have proven to be safer.

And again, if people were relying on public transportation more, our traffic fatalities would be way down.

I’ve seen [the city] prioritize bike lanes before they’ve even fixed our sidewalks. Now, I’m using the bike lanes to get through the city, which probably isn’t safe for me.  

Accessibility is real nice in places with income and business wealth [like the Union Station area]. When I go to different … neighborhoods, like Swansea or Montbello, there’s no access. The city is still prioritizing these places of wealth, that generate business, rather than safety for everyone.

After the interview, Heffernan proivdes a lift to Kane Klipka as they rush to catch a train at Union Station.
After the interview, Heffernan proivdes a lift to Kane Klipka as they rush to catch a train at Union Station. Photo: Andy Bosselman

Q: At Streetsblog, we want to help the city grow the number of people walking, biking and taking transit. But sidewalk improvements, biking improvements and creating priority lanes for buses, they often require reallocating street space. That often means taking out parking. At community meetings where these improvements are discussed, people may support the city doing these things citywide, but when it comes to taking out the parking spot that they might use, they tend to get really emotional. When it comes to being a politician, and needing to appease multiple constituencies while also working toward a bigger vision for mobility, how would you handle that kind of opposition?

A: The whole transit-mobility discussion, while I’m glad that it’s a popular thing, it’s coming from a very ableist lens right now. I don’t see representation of people with disabilities. That’s just one thing that I would bring to the table as a leader.

This whole walk [or] bike to work thing, you’re leaving out a huge population of people that can’t walk. Can’t bike. It intersects with every race, class, socioeconomic status, gender identity — you name it. Those are the people that should be leading these transit and mobility discussions. Because we get left out very quickly.

People have a real fear of losing their parking because the reality is, we can’t depend on public transportation yet. It’s going to take awhile to build that trust, that ‘hey we’re going to be able to let go of cars and rely on transit.’

If I had access to a car right now, I probably would ditch the bus because it’s a lot easier. It’s a lot more affordable, which is outrageous. We should be incentivizing public transit and public mobility.

Q: On making transit free, how would you pay for that?

A: Right away, starting to charge for Park-And-Ride parking. I would look to transit experts and cities that [provide] free transportation. It can it can be done and it has been done. It’s just got to be a priority.

Q: One way to reduce car dependency is building out the network of bike lanes. Where do you stand on that?

A: I don’t stand.

I would prioritize public transit first and sidewalks next. I do think that we need safe access to bike lanes. I think that we’re doing a really good job at that. If we continue in the path that we’re going, I think that’s great. But we also have to prioritize some other things for people that can’t access bikes.

Q: Around development there’s 100,000 people who came to Denver in the last few years. A lot of housing has been built. Obviously it’s not enough to keep the city affordable for a lot of people. Talk to me about your ideas for affordable housing.

A: I would only take on contracts from developers that are going to provide affordable units. And not just affordable to people making 50% of the [Area Median Income], which doesn’t reflect the yearly funds of most people in the city. But also prioritizing units for [people with incomes at] zero to 30% of the AMI. Once we start to stabilize our housing, then we can let more rich developers in. But not until we house everyone.

Q: You’ve talked about RTD a lot, would you consider running for the RTD board?

A: No, I’m not running for anything.

Q: How about rolling for election to the RTD board?

A: Probably not. It’s go big or go home. I’m already the mayor, so that’s why I jumped into the race. I’m already a very recognizable, known community person.

Q: Is there anything else that you’d like readers to know that hasn’t been covered yet?

A: I appreciate you including me in this. It’s been a really interesting process to file my candidacy and get on the ballot, but still be excluded forums and debates and media because because our campaign isn’t seen as viable, because of finances.

My whole role as an artist within this election, political theater, has been to see how far we can go without money. And what it would really truly mean to be an all-accessible community-based campaign.

And what it would mean to [put the campaign money we’ve raised] into the community now. With all the campaign finances that we’ve generated, we’ve fed hundreds of unhoused neighbors. We’ve built ramps. And we’ve made art.  

We believe that politics aren’t going to save us. We have to start doing things now with the resources that we have. And using our limitations to expand and be more creative. So thanks for listening to Twitter.

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