Back on Track: Meet District D Representative Bobby Dishell
This is part five of the Streetsblog Denver series covering the RTD Board of Directors. Every Friday, we’ll be looking at the newest updates with RTD and its board members. We’ll explore the issues RTD is facing and the responsibility of the board to address them. Read parts one, two, three, and four.
RTD is in need of dramatic reform to bring the agency out of its financial disaster and increase ridership while keeping operators and riders safe and healthy. Bobby Dishell is ready to take on that challenge. Dishell is the new representative for District D, which covers parts of south Denver including Englewood, Sheridan, and Bowmar. In his new role, Dishell aims to affect change within RTD, recognizing that public transportation is more than just getting to and from work. “Our city and state’s transit hubs, routes and fares often determine access to opportunity,” Dishell states on his website.
His long-standing history with public transit has prepared him to be an advocate for accessibility and provide a voice for residents who depend on transit the most. As a law student at CU Boulder, he commuted from South Denver to Boulder using both the light rail and bus to get to class. When he was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, he created a public university bus route that helped students traverse campus and helped provide transportation to the airport during peak travel seasons for students. As a public school teacher, he saw firsthand how students struggled to afford bus passes and the challenges young people face depending on public transportation to get to school.
Today, Dishell still depends on public transit as his main form of transportation, bringing a unique and necessary voice to the board. “When I learned that there were board members who didn’t use the system, I found that to be troubling,” Dishell told Streetsblog Denver. He views public transportation as an essential service that is often forgotten about and not always equitable in the way that it serves the public. According to Dishell’s website, he’d like to see fares become more affordable and not have the quality of service be impacted by location.
While he is committed to representing his district on the board, Dishell also recognizes the broader responsibility of his role. “I really want to highlight and emphasize that my fiduciary duty, as every board member’s fiduciary duty, is to the board and the system as a whole, not to their district,” states Dishell.
Among his top priorities is RTD’s current financial troubles. Dishell believes that the agency’s financial focus should be on providing a strong core service, which would ideally allow them to subsidize regional routes that service a smaller population. “I truly am firmly opposed to sitting and trying to bank money for a train that might not exist at the expense of our core services,” he said, referring to the extension of the B Line rail to Boulder and Longmont. While he agrees that the unfinished FasTracks projects need to be dealt with, he believes RTD needs to seek state and federal funding to complete those projects and consider the fact Denver has a denser population that needs more attention than Boulder. “Things have changed in the Denver Metro area, it’s not what it was in 2004,” stated Dishell. “We need to be making sure that our money is being spent to meet the needs of people who rely on us today.”
Dishell also wants to prioritize reconnecting RTD to its public and rebuilding a relationship of trust. He believes the agency has made strong efforts to remain transparent but could improve communication, internally and with the public. While there are many riders who take the train and bus daily, many others are left confused and unsure of how to use the system. Dishell points out things like unclear fares, access points, and knowledge of discount programs are preventing certain people from accessing the services RTD offers. “That I think, really is the next step,” Dishell explained. “How do we make this clear and simple for people to access and use?”
That improvement includes publicizing information regarding COVID-19. Dishell hopes that RTD will prioritize what leading public health experts say and then clearly communicate that information to the public. For example, he brings up the issue of air flow on buses as we move into colder weather and windows are no longer able to be down. A recent study was done on the airflow in RTD buses and light rails and RTD has taken steps to address this, but Dishell believes RTD could communicate these steps more fully to frequent transit users.
When considering how to keep the agency moving forward as COVID-19 cases increase across the state, Dishell suggests returning to back door boarding and fare suspension. “We still need to get people to work, we still need to protect our drivers and operators,” he stated. He also sees COVID-19 as an opportunity for the agency to reflect on things that haven’t been working and take time to step back and reevaluate some things, like finances. RTD is primarily financed by sales taxes followed by revenue from fares. While Dishell admits he doesn’t have answers to the budget crisis, he does think there is an opportunity to reevaluate. “I think COVID is a perfect example of the way in which we’re financed might not work,” Dishell stated. “I think it’s a real opportunity to take a step back and look at our system as a whole.”
Dishell would also like to see RTD focus on developing a stronger climate plan with the goal of having a zero-emission fleet and convert to electric buses, as well as becoming a leader in solar and battery storage. “In order to meet our climate goals we have to get public transportation where it should be and we need people to be on it,” he said. This topic was a point of concern for residents of District D who Dishell talked with during his campaign.
Ultimately, Dishell wants to see RTD become more than just a necessity for residents, but a choice. “I’m excited to get more people on public transit,” he said. “And to not just get them there, but make sure that it’s a choice people want to make, so that it’s easy for people, that it’s accessible.” His willingness to challenge long-standing practices and approaches to transit in Colorado is sure to bring a new perspective to the RTD Board of Directors. Time will tell if Dishell’s approach to the board is what RTD needs or if his ideas will be met with resistance.
Dishell wants residents in his district to know that he wants to hear from them and they should feel comfortable reaching out to him. He can be reached by email at Bobby.Dishell@DishellForRTD.com or on social media at @DishellForRTD on all platforms.
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