5280 Magazine – November 2008 – "Riding the Rails"

5280cover-nov5280nov-ridingtherails(from 5280 Magazine, November 2008, page 31)

Riding the Rails

Can RTD keep up with its success?

If America is addicted to cars, Denver appears to have been in rehab. Fed up with high gas prices and commuter congestion—and, perhaps, possessing a desire to cut their carbon emissions—metro area residents have been taking public transportation like never before. The Regional Transportation District expects a record 100 million riders in 2008—and was named “Best Transit Agency in North America” by the American Public Transportation Association.

Any celebrations, however, are on hold, because RTD is struggling to keep up with demand. Park-n-Ride lots are overflowing, and updating the system’s buses will cost $67 million in 2009. Almost 100,000 riders carry unlimited-use, deeply discounted Eco Passes, on which RTD just breaks even. Then there are the passengers that don’t pay: Because hardened security measures like turnstiles don’t exist on the light rail, scofflaw commuters will cop a free ride more than 2.5 million times this year, costing RTD more than $4.5 million.

To make up for the budget shortfall, the agency is raising rates in January, by 25 cents for local rides and 50 cents for express and regional rides, to bring in an extra $11 million next year. (RTD’s 2008 budget is $458.4 million.) The agency will also increase prices for Eco Passes by 19 percent, and will start charging at Park-n-Rides for out-of-district and long-term parking.

While RTD’s quick fixes should stave off immediate turmoil, raising rates hurts working-class people who depend most on public transit and drives away the middle and upper-class riders who’ve started using it. If RTD hopes to keep increasing ridership, it will have to explore other solutions besides price hikes—otherwise, all those recovering oil addicts might just decide to kick their new habit and head back to their cars.

—Ron Doyle

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