Back on Track: Conversations with Doug Tisdale and Kate Williams
This is part eight 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, four, five, six, and seven.
Over the past four weeks, Streetsblog has introduced you to the four new elected members of the RTD Board of Directors. This week we talked with Doug Tisdale and Kate Williams, who were each reelected to each serve a second term for their districts. Tisdale and Williams reflected on the past four years and what they’ve learned, and gave us some insight into the future of the RTD board.
Tisdale has been on the board since 2016 as the representative for District H. His district covers Highlands Ranch, Littleton, and other southern suburbs of Denver. He ran against Regan Byrd and Roger Edwards, winning a second term with the board.
Q: What are some challenges the board has dealt with recently?
A: Well, let’s directly address the reduction in staff. The one thing to keep in mind is this: If you are not providing 100% of the services, it just stands to reason that you don’t need 100% of your employees. It’s just that simple. And as difficult a decision as that is, you have to make some adjustments, because these are taxpayer dollars that we’re talking about.
And that is the lesson that is learned by all of the transit agencies across the country, from New York, to Washington, to Austin, to Phoenix, to Los Angeles to San Francisco. Everyone is doing the exact same thing.* They are doing a reduction in force, scaling back the number of operators based upon scaled back operations.
Q: What are you most proud of in your work with RTD?
A: I am very proud of the fact that we opened up the W line to Arvada and Wheat Ridge. Even though it was delayed and took longer than we had originally scheduled for it, it is a phenomenal line that demonstrates the incredible vibrancy of an area that results from having a train go through it. This is one of the most incredibly well planned series of stations with Transit Oriented Development (TOD) that we have in the system.
Q: What is the most important thing you’ve learned in your time on the board?
A: The importance of listening; listening to our senior leadership team, to our staff, and to each other, because none of us has all of the answers, and we all can benefit from listening. And as a result, being able to recast and reformulate our thoughts and through collaboration, come up with some better solutions upon which we can all cooperate, and finally get something done. That’s the biggest single lesson. Every time you get new board members coming on, you have to share that wisdom.
Q: How is the board working to address issues of the incomplete FasTracks projects?
A: I believe that there are opportunities available for us to see those come forward sooner than projected, which right now is about 2045.
So the answer is number one, we’re going to continue to collect and bank dollars that we get through sales tax. And as the economy improves, that will help. Number two, however, is also to explore innovative approaches. And one of those is a further public private partnership, where we have someone who will come in and assume some of the risk with us and some of the reward, but most importantly, provide the funding, so that we can then go to the federal government, get federal dollars, and be able to complete those projects.
Q: In your opinion, what are the priorities of the board going forward?
A: The key factor is the whole idea of creating fiscal sustainability. We’re doing better than we might have thought concerning sales tax, and each time we get updated data, they’re actually better than we have projected. That’s why we went from solving a proposed budget deficit of $210 million, down to solving a budget deficit that was projected to be $140 million. That’s a big deal. So that fiscal sustainability needs to be monitored closely.
I don’t think the voters’ mindset will allow us to increase taxes; I think that’s pretty clear. So we do have to work with our partners: the state, the local governments, the counties, the cities, the towns, to see how we can collaborate together to come up with some additional funding to meet the shortfall. Because the last thing we want to do at this point, is even think about, let alone impose, a fare increase.
*Streetsblog Denver was unable to verify the claim that other agencies have already implemented employee layoffs.
Williams will be entering her second term as the representative for District A, a mainly transit-dependent district. District A covers neighborhoods like downtown Denver, Capitol Hill, and parts of Glendale. Williams ran against Kyle Bradell and Tim Nelson.
Q: What goals do you have for the future of the board?
A: My main goal for 2021 is communication and outreach. I’ve ridden transit all over the world, and in a relative sense, RTD is safe, clean, mostly on time, responsive, and really a decent public service. We just can’t seem to get that message out. I talk to a variety of riders almost every day and most of them have specific requests – they are not unhappy with the agency as a whole. There is a whole range of data saying that there have been no outbreak events due to the use of public transit. We are sanitizing our vehicles daily with the best methods available, we’ve put up shields for our drivers, and we’re asking our riders to wear masks and maintain social distancing standards.
I also believe that we need to continue to address equity. Those who need RTD are riding RTD and those who have the means to stay home or to drive are not riding RTD. Our CFO said once that we had 364,000 riders per day on March 1; we had 144,000 riders on March 15 and we STILL have those 144,000 riders. We need to service those riders and we need to let more people know that we are serving and want to go on serving those who need us.
Q: What are you most proud of as a board member?
A: What I’m the most proud of is the fact that RTD is 100% accessible. I didn’t know that until I came to be on the RTD board. And most people don’t know that there isn’t a single vehicle that cannot accommodate a person in a wheelchair; we are 100% accessible.
Q: What are some things you would have liked to change in your previous term?
A: One of my current regrets is the upcoming layoffs. Although RTD is not a for-profit business, in many ways we must run it on a reasonable business basis, and we just cannot keep represented (union) or non-represented (none union) employees when our ridership and our budget do not allow it. I hope that our union will work with us on this situation.
Q: Is there anything you wish you knew before you started your position?
A: I wish that I knew about how our team works before I started, but when you start on the RTD board, you drink from a fire hose for months. I’m so sympathetic for the five* new board members because you just can’t absorb it all. And I wish there was some kind of way that the system worked so that people got all of that information six months before they started serving. It’s different when you’re running your second time around, but I am still going to all of the new member orientations. Because now I’m going to get more out of it than I got the first time around.
Q: What challenges does the board face looking to the new year?
A: We need to continue to provide as much service as we can. And try to be nimble enough to replace what’s been lost as the opportunity comes up and as the virus subsides, and people begin to ride more. RTD is not normally nimble. That’s not a word that anybody uses about a transit agency. We’re not accustomed to adjusting in the spur of the moment. But we’re learning and we’ve been better. And that’s our challenge to try and keep up with the world as it changes based around COVID and ridership.
Q: Is there anything you want riders to know?
A: I hope that people know they are able to ride RTD. The transit system is not a place where people are getting sick; there’s no documentation saying that people have gotten COVID on transit. I know that we have bus drivers who have gotten COVID, but generically speaking, the transit system is way safer than the grocery store.
*The RTD Board of Directors has a total of five new board members; four were elected and one was appointed.
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