Commentary: Colorado Legislators Must Undo Laws That Hamstring RTD

Photo - passengers board the W Line train at Union Station
Passengers board the W Line train at Union Station on November 11. Photo: Andy Bosselman

This guest commentary is by John Riecke, a local mobility advocate and member of the Denver Bicycle Lobby. He is active on Twitter at @JCRiecke.

What would you say if I told you I could reduce RTD’s budget deficit while decreasing fares, and make the whole system more useful, all without raising taxes?

And as an extra added incentive, I’d remove all the window-blocking advertising so you don’t feel as if you’re traveling inside a rolling billboard designed to punish you for using it. You’d probably say something like, “That’s awesome John, yes! Why haven’t we already done it?” 

“Politics,” I’d reply.

You see, there are two laws on the books that were passed in the state legislature which restrict RTDs options when it comes to their budgeting, operations, and the use of land that they own near rail stations.

The first law says that a certain percentage of revenue for service must come from fare recovery; that is, actual money paid by users. That minimum recovery value is 20%. 

So even if RTD got a tax increase passed and expanded service they’d still have to make at least 20% of the budget on fares. That means it’s literally illegal to have have fareless “free” transit. Even if we voted to double the RTD sales tax to 2% RTD would still have to charge to ride. It’s also why some of our buses have 360′ advertisements plastered over the windows; those ads count as fare revenue. So when you’re sitting on the bus trying to imagine what the street looks like outside without looking through each ad’s matrix of dots, you can thank the state legislature for making that necessary.

The other law on the books says that RTD is not allowed to develop the land they own around their rail or bus stations. 

At the time lawmakers stated that they wanted RTD to “focus on the job at hand” and “not attempt projects outside their expertise.” Really, I suspect they just wanted to make sure that RTD couldn’t find another source of revenue, which would make their service more affordable. 

Now you know why all our stations are surrounded by parking lots instead of businesses, housing, offices or anything useful. Just parking. 

Oh, did I forget to mention? There’s also a law which sets limits on how much RTD can charge for parking. 

Basically, lawmakers at the state level have hamstrung RTD. Who knows, maybe (though I doubt it) they had good intentions. Whatever the reason, it’s time to remove these onerous restrictions on RTD’s ability to raise revenue, to make their service more useful and reliable, and to charge a fair market rate for the use of the land surrounding their stations.

Imagine, if you will, not driving to the RTD station to park in a burning asphalt sea of cars, but taking the local bus to the station (because RTD now has the revenue to run it frequently) to go to work (because RTD was able to build an office tower built next to the station). Or maybe you’re going to dinner at a new restaurant which opened at the station because enough people now live around it (in new apartments developed on RTD land) to support the business? What if, instead of paying $6 for a daily pass that bus was step-on-step-off, just like the Mallride downtown, because voters decided to raise their taxes by a fraction of a percent to make it so?

Unless we get these laws changed at the state level, RTD will continue fighting with one hand behind its back. They were behind the 8-ball from the beginning, having to place their rail lines next highways and in industrial areas. With the addition of laws designed to keep them from reaching their potential it’s no wonder that they struggle.

Imagine if RTD’s rail lines, instead of draining resources from the system, actually subsidized the buses, and allowed greater coverage and more frequency. That could happen. Transit agencies all around the world do it. We should too. Call you state legislator and tell them to make it so.

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