RTD in Crisis Part 2: A Failure of Leadership

Gov. Polis, members of the Colorado General Assembly and RTD's board of directors are to blame

Passenger boards RTD 15 bus

This is the second in a three-part series about the crisis at RTD and how the governor and state legislature should fix it. 


A failure of leadership caused the current crisis at the Regional Transportation District.

Governor Jared Polis has barely mentioned RTD since he took office a year ago. Members of the Colorado General Assembly created the agency 50 years ago, but today’s state senators and representatives do more to hurt the agency than help it. And the people who run RTD, its board of directors, put their own political interests before the transportation needs of the region they serve. 

Voters in 15 districts across eight counties elect each member of RTD’s board. Together the agency spans a 2,342-mile service area, making it the largest transit agency in America by area. 

This expansive territory gives disproportionate power to board members whose districts have relatively low population density. They represent places that often lack the kind of apartment buildings, job centers, universities and medical centers where busloads of people want to travel to and from. 

But each board member must jockey to bring something back to their district. 

This structure sets up the agency to fail. To see how, just look at how the board has designed the current network of buses and trains, which is withering before our eyes through declining ridership and years of consecutive service cuts.  

Actually, the train system looks cool on RTD’s rail map. But what the candy-colored lines don’t reveal is the small number of people who live and work around most stops. 

The bus network spreads into too many sparsely populated places, too. Many of its routes don’t travel in straight lines, which is confusing to riders. And infrequent schedules often require people to plan their days around complicated timetables. 

There’s certainly a place for suburban mass transit. But what RTD offers is of little use to most residents of the region. 

By all measures, the number of people taking RTD should have grown dramatically in recent years. Transit ridership is growing in similar-sized cities. RTD’s rail network has expanded greatly. And a population boom brought 100,000 new residents in less than a decade to Denver alone. 

But RTD provides six million fewer trips per year than it did in 2014. 

Without good options, one-time transit riders get into cars and SUVs. They crowd onto roads and highways, usually driving alone. And now we know that widening roads won’t help alleviate congestion (more on that later). 

The board knows it is failing. They responded to growing criticism with “Reimagine RTD,” a two-year process to revamp the agency’s operations. 

At an event to kick off the initiative in July, Dave Genova, RTD’s general manager and CEO, with then board chair Doug Tisdale, promised the effort would ask the public for honest feedback and use it to guide the agency as it applied industry-leading practices and ideas.

But when a forward-thinking idea was presented at the same event, the board rejected it.

 

RTD paid the internationally respected transit planner Jarrett Walker $18,000 to give an inspirational speech. His firm has helped to grow ridership at several transit agencies around the world, including at Houston Metro. (RTD hired Walker just to give a speech, not to help with its “Reimagine” process). 

In his talk, Walker said the key to attracting more people to buses can be found in a measurement he calls “ridership versus coverage.” 

The idea is simple. Transit agencies should put bus lines where the most people would use them. These ridership-focused routes should provide fast, frequent service. To get people to those lines, transit operators should offer limited coverage to sparsely populated areas. And when an agency has evaluated which routes provide high ridership versus those that cover a wide area, it can make better decisions about how to allocate resources and get more people on buses.  

The concept was explored further in a series of stories by Nathaniel Minor at CPR. Minor and I each grilled every member of RTD’s board to see if they would use the metric. But to the agency’s board members — and their outsized suburban interests — finding RTD’s ridership versus coverage information is a truth they can’t handle. The board refused to even consider compiling the information.

Given the board’s poor performance, it’s time to consider restructuring RTD. But who would take charge of such a reorganization? 

The State of Colorado is the obvious answer. 

It created RTD half a century ago. In 1969, it was clear that the Denver Metro needed a well-organized urban transportation system. As the state’s economic powerhouse, the region’s success would help all of Colorado thrive. But today, state officials’ failure to look after RTD has resulted in widespread traffic congestion that forces millions to sit in life-draining gridlock that zaps economic productivity. 

The Governor and the General Assembly should stop its decades-long neglect of the agency. But instead of working to get RTD back on track, Gov. Polis and state legislators have tended to throw their hands up and claim they have little responsibility for the semi-independent agency. 

Although last month a handful of state lawmakers expressed an interest in RTD when they threatened to restructure it, their ideas were not the result of smart analysis that looked at how the world’s best transit agencies are governed. Instead, the only proposal they put forward amounts to throwing spaghetti at the wall. State Sen. Jack Tate (R-Centennial) suggested increasing the state’s financial oversight of RTD and requiring the governor to appoint two new members to the agency’s already bloated 15-member board of directors. 

The minimal effort legislators put into fixing RTD was expressed plainly by State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger (D-Arvada) last month. 

“There’s a lack of willingness on the legislature’s part to make changes that could benefit RTD,” wrote CPR’s Nathaniel Minor when summing up one of Zenzinger’s comments.

Some in the assembly’s leadership have even expressed hostility toward sustainable modes of transportation — and RTD itself. 

Last Tuesday, KC Becker, Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives and a Democrat from Boulder, was criticized for rejecting a proposed Front Range passenger rail line. She responded with Trumpian false rhetoric.

“I’m supposed to enable the same people who lied about a train to Boulder to do it again?” she wrote in a tweet.

But RTD has no connection to the proposed Front Range rail project.

The agency also never lied about its train to Boulder. RTD’s entire FasTracks rail expansion was delayed when the 2008 financial crisis cut the project’s funding as construction and land costs rose dramatically. (Though the state could have stepped in to help, it did nothing.)

Another elected leader mocked the idea of investing in bike lanes, which could use the streets we have to move a greater number of people than cars. The Republican leader of the House, Patrick Neville of Castle Rock, suggested last week that the state should focus on widening roads instead of “extra pogo stick lanes or bike lanes,” as the Colorado Sun reported.

His sneering comment offers another example of Trump-era post-truth politics seeping into Colorado politics. But the problem doesn’t stop there. 

Neville, like many elected officials, willfully refuse to understand “induced demand,” the phenomenon where adding more lanes to roads results in more traffic congestion than before. 

Colorado proved the concept with the $1.6 billion T-REX highway expansion. Just five years after it opened, congestion on I-25 in Denver became worse than it was before the project.

The lies, rejection of facts and exaggerated jabs have come without any pushback from Gov. Polis, whose failure to demonstrate leadership around public transportation was evident in what he did not say in his State of the State address Thursday. Polis said not one word about public transportation

And while state officials have little apparent interest in stewarding RTD toward success, their policies continue to cripple the agency’s efforts to find new revenue by prohibiting it from profiting from parking and land near its stations. 

Mayors within RTD’s service area bear responsibility, too.

In Denver, for example, Mayor Hancock changed the name of the Department of Public Works to the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. But the move will be meaningless unless he finds funds to advance the city’s mobility goals and accelerate initiatives that have languished for years in his administration’s bureaucracy, like Colfax Bus Rapid Transit.   

This series started by detailing why RTD is in crisis. Today, we laid out the multiple failures of leadership behind it. Visit Streetsblog tomorrow to see ideas on how the city, state and RTD should fix the failing agency. 


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