RTD in Crisis Part 3: Here’s How to Fix RTD

Colorado must reckon with its new urban reality

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

This series is about the crisis at RTD. Poor management must be overcome. Inadequate funding needs to be addressed. And disinterested elected officials should be engaged.

But the problems we see with public transportation may have roots in the lack of powerful people who serve as advocates for better transit — and Coloradans who don’t yet see themselves as urbanites.   

To end the state’s growing traffic problems, to eliminate homelessness, to make housing more affordable and to address the climate crisis, the people of Colorado need a new vision for their state. 

First, however, they must face the truth: Most Coloradans are now citydwellers. 

The Centennial State is no longer a constellation of small settlements with a big cow town as its capitol. Suburbs along the Front Range have grown into cities, each merging into one another,  forming a single metropolis where three million people live and work.

But state and local policies have not caught up to this urban reality. 

Roads continue to be widened, which encourages new development. But local zoning laws prevent these new buildings from being dense enough to fill buses and trains. And the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights stops Colorado from making investments that have increased transit ridership elsewhere. 

In other words, state laws and city ordinances continue to encourage sprawl, worsen pollution, drive up housing costs and intensify the need for cars. 

To many, life in this urbanized region commits them to servitude. With cars costing an average of $9,000 per year, month-after-month, people must pay the banks that provide their auto loans. And day-after-day, they must waste chunks of their lives sitting in stop-and-go traffic. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

Once Coloradans admit that the current approach to growth hasn’t worked, they can pressure elected officials to end the fantasy of unrestrained suburban sprawl and demand a new vision for urban Colorado. 

Copenhagen, Tokyo and Toronto proved that old cities and suburbs can adapt to become pleasant, well-organized places to live and work. Coloradans should expect the same, and they can take a cue from California. 

A proposed law there, S.B. 50, would encourage denser development near transit stops — and improve quality of life. The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey sums it up here:

S.B. 50 would override local restrictions on building, letting developers create more housing and denser housing near train stations and high-frequency bus stops. Homeowners would be able to build accessory dwelling units or casitas; companies would be able to build small apartment complexes. … it would reorient the state’s growth away from sprawl toward infill. Housing would get more plentiful, and thus cheaper. …

If the bill passes, California would become denser, cheaper, greener, and more affordable—a state less centered on car culture, and more centered on walkable neighborhoods; less responsive to the aesthetic complaints of longtime property owners, more responsive to the needs of young families. 

As Coloradans accept their new urban identities, other reforms to improve housing and transportation will follow. They may reconsider TABOR, too. 

After voters rejected multiple recent transportation funding initiatives, it’s clear that requiring them to approve every tax increase is incompatible with the needs of an increasingly urbanized state. 

Lawmakers should run a TABOR repeal referendum every election. And its certainty of failure, even if it happens year-after-year,  should not deter them. As a matter of principle, Coloradans should confront this harmful amendment every time they vote. Eventually, it will fall. 

Until then, RTD’s funding problems should be addressed. 

In 2018, the agency relied on a 0.6% sales tax for 58 percent of its operating budget. But the rate hasn’t increased since 1983, which has prevented the agency from growing and adapting to the changing needs of the region. (The 2005 0.4% increase goes toward FasTracks). 

When considering new funding sources for RTD, sales taxes should not be on the list. 

Sales tax revenue shrinks every time the economy slows, which is exactly when would-be transit riders need it most. Hard times are when people have less cash to buy gas or finance new cars. Relying on sales taxes forces RTD to cut service frequently, just as it will do this year to prepare for a $42 million budget shortfall. 

The recent failure of statewide transportation tax measures should not deter lawmakers from finding new funding, even with TABOR. Voters along the Front Range generally supported the measures. And now, more focused transportation tax plans that would only require regional approval are being considered. Such measures are not yet allowed, but state lawmakers should move forward with legislation to authorize them

All levels of Colorado government should also push for more federal support for public transportation. Today, the federal government guarantees states can access more than $40 billion per year for highways, according to Transportation for America. But just $2.6 billion is available for new or expanded public transit. The feds also pay for up to 80 percent of the cost of a highway, versus up to 50 percent for a transit project. 

The State of Colorado and the City of Denver have lobbyists in Washington. They, and the state’s congressional delegation, should be working to reverse the bias against public transportation funding. 

Legislators should also take action to ensure RTD is well run. 

They could start by eliminating Colorado’s anti-transit laws that prohibit RTD from earning money from parking and land near its stations. 

Members of the General Assembly should also review how the agency is governed. 

Yesterday, I laid out why RTD’s current board isn’t effective. But instead of throwing out haphazard reform ideas, like a suggestion to add two new members to the agency’s already bloated 15-member board of directors, a more thoughtful approach is needed. 

The legislature should step back and study how the world’s most successful transit agencies are governed. 

  • The regional transportation network in Paris is one of the best in the world. How is it managed?
  • At American transit agencies where ridership is growing, do elected or appointed boards run the show? 
  • If boards are elected, how are districts drawn to avoid giving too much power to representatives from low-density areas?
  • How do other agencies ensure that actual transit riders are represented in the organization’s leadership? 

After careful study, the legislature could restructure RTD to better meet the region’s current transportation needs. 

The legislature should also encourage RTD to hire a bold new CEO.

If the board’s picks for interim CEO are any guide, their choice for the agency’s top job will likely go to a ho-hum, business-as-usual figurehead who will achieve little more than incremental change.  

RTD needs more than that. 

It’s time for a reformer who rides transit, even if that means considering people without the “right kind” of experience. 

That’s exactly what San Francisco Mayor London Breed did in November. After decades where experienced bureaucrats failed to make noticeable improvements to the city’s notoriously slow system of buses and trains, Breed looked outside of the box and hired a man who had never run a government organization. 

“San Francisco’s new transit chief, Jeffrey Tumlin, has never managed a transit system,” according to the first sentence of a San Francisco Chronicle story about the hire.  

But the mayor has been widely praised for her choice and many in the city are “enamored” with the urban planner and consultant who helped to launch Oakland’s Department of Transportation. 

A similar move worked in New York City. The Transit Authority put Andy Byford, a change agent, into its top job. He quickly developed a reorganization plan and made the city’s subways more reliable

In addition to hiring someone who will push for change, RTD needs a risk-taking advocate for the agency. This is critical when you look at the agency’s past mistakes. Many of RTD’s rail stops are useless to the people they intended to serve. The agency didn’t push hard enough to put them in places where people would actually use them. 

As the transit planner and author Christof Spieler pointed out, light rail stops at the Anschutz Medical Center and Tech Center should have been located right in the middle of each area, not a quarter of a mile from one edge of the campus (Anschutz) or on the other side of a freeway (Tech Center). 

Certainly these decisions were not made by people who ride transit regularly. Also, there are likely few transit riders among the General Assembly, members of RTD’s board and the governor himself. 

Given the hundreds of thousands of Coloradans who rely on public transportation — and the general absence of these transit riders from the state’s leadership — perhaps what Colorado needs most is a top transit advocate. 

If the state can have a marijuana czar, should it not also have a full-time official who rides, understands and pushes for better public transportation? 

I’ve never heard of such a job elsewhere, but it might be time for one in Colorado. 

Until then, it’s up to the governor, state officials, RTD’s board and Front Range residents to allow their suburban identities to fade. It’s time to embrace the fact that we live in a metropolis — and start pushing for public policy that supports this new urban reality. 

And whether we drive or ride, perhaps all of us should become transit advocates, too. 

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