The election is rapidly approaching — at least as quickly as the A-Line headed for the airport and decidedly quicker than the 15 at rush hour.
Whatever your preferred transportation speed metaphor, it’s coming, and that means we need to do some thinking about public transit.
None of the 2018 ballot initiatives directly really affect public transportation (though there are two about funding road improvements), but there are seven RTD Board of Directors seats up for grabs. The 15-member board governs RTD and its 2,342 square miles covering all or parts of eight metro Denver counties.
And, in what people who know things about public transit authorities will tell you is a pretty unusual system — they’re all elected. The seats go up to a vote in alternating groups, eight seats in one election and seven in another, and members serve four-year terms. They each represent about 198,000 residents.
You might know this section of your ballot as the long list of names you’ve never heard, the part you guess at or the part you ignore.
“I like to call it the ‘eeny meeny miny moe’ part of the ballot,” said Bill Jones, in-house attorney for Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1001. “The conventional wisdom is just getting top line could potentially win you the race. It’s hard to get your message out there.”
But the choices to be made there are arguably growing more important as Denver’s population climbs and alternative modes of transportation arrive at a steady clip. So we talked to people in the know about the big issues RTD board members face.
First of all, here’s what public affairs senior specialist Laurie Huff identified as RTD’s priorities right now and moving forward:
- Overall emphasis shifting from capital projects to operations and maintenance
- Fare review and pass program study
- Focus on recruitment and retention of bus and train operators and mechanics
- Continued commitment to completing projects within the FasTracks program
- Recognition that we’re on the cusp of a “transportation transformation,” a recognition that the mobility marketplace is changing – and a concept that is a strategic priority for 2019. Our agency is working to lead efforts around mobility integration across our region. Our senior leadership team devotes an hour every week to discussing forward-thinking concepts.
Now, the issues…
The “transportation transformation”
Let’s start with the big one. Traffic is getting worse, the bike lane network is growing, dockless electric scooters are here to stay and we’re figuring out how to deal with it all.
Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman, chair of Denver City Council’s Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, has her own priority list: create a mobility department, create a database for tracking all vehicle movement in Denver, and have the city take more ownership of its transit.
The mobility department is a big one, but also possibly the most immediate. The process has already begun.
“I see this department as — Public Works handles infrastructure and does a good job, but we need people that are just concentrating on how we move around on top of that infrastructure or through it or above it, however it’s going to be,” Susman said. “The new head of Public Works has begun separating out functions to get ready for it. They keep calling it the transportation department, I want to call it mobility.”
It will eventually require a vote of the people, but Susman says that’ll have to wait until next year. In the meantime, the city will be at work setting it all up.
Far more long-term is her goal to get an all-encompassing transportation management system going. She’s mentioned it before in a LUTI committee meeting — a system she saw in Los Angeles that monitors and manages all the ways people are moving throughout the city.
“We need to create a very large database to manage all the vehicles that may be coming to our city,” Susman said. “Are we going to get hover boards? We got drones coming, right? And they’ve even invented a drone that will carry a person. We need to create a database that tracks of all these, a sort of 3D database that also manages things that might move in the air. Eventually, we’re going to have like an air traffic control system. When a company comes into this city, it will have to have a system that talks to the city’s database.”
And, on a more ongoing basis, there’s the idea that Denver should take more ownership over its transit. The city once had the Denver Transit Authority, Susman pointed out, before it had to be bailed out by Mayor William McNichols and eventually failed, making way for RTD in 1969.
“I think RTD has done a great job with regional transportation, but they are a regional transportation district and Denver’s needs are pretty unique in our state because of our size,” she said. “The three top things that my constituents get concerned about are traffic, traffic and traffic. We just need to own that issue.”
That, of course, entails a lot of individual goals and problems. One of them is simply figuring out how to convince Denverites to get out of their cars and use public transit instead. That means killing the stigma some feel comes with riding a bus, getting people thinking about the money they could save without a car, and getting the buses and trains running more frequently so they’re more convenient.
And on that last note, getting the city more involved to Susman means addressing what she calls the “doughnut hole of transit” — or the fact that metro Denver’s public transportation is oriented for the longer-distance commuter and not the person who only needs to travel a mile in the heart of the city. In other words, she thinks we’re focused quite a lot on that “first mile, last mile” problem for commuters in and out of the city and not enough on city-core residents moving in a smaller range.
“It’s not the mile I got to get to transit,” Susman said, “it’s the mile I move around all day.”
“I have of course been talking with the micro-transit companies, starting out with Bridge, but they went bankrupt. Got in touch with Chariot, which was bought by I think the Ford company last year. It’s a 14-passenger shuttle and we’re going to do a pilot on it between Cherry Creek and downtown, Capitol Hill, primarily for workers. If it’s successful we hope to expand it to Lowry and Ninth and Colorado Boulevard and up at the Colorado Transit Station so that we can get people moving more.”
Driver retention and better working conditions
As Denverite reported late last year, RTD has been struggling to hire and retain drivers, which has been causing service problems.
In March, RTD and the transit workers union agreed to a new contract that included an 8 percent raise across the board, reduced mandatory overtime and instituted mandatory bathroom breaks.
But Jones said there’s still some ground to cover to make the jobs better. For one thing, he said, drivers aren’t actually getting that mandatory break.
“We’re still having an attrition problem and the reason for that is people aren’t being treated very well,” he said. “On paper, you might have 10 minutes between when you pull in to the end of the run and when you have to leave again, but in actuality, you’re running eight to 10 minutes late by the time you get in. And even though you contractually have the right to [take a break], there’s a pressure there.”
Essentially, he said, drivers don’t take breaks because they don’t want to disappoint or anger riders by being late.
This year, ATU Local 1001 is getting more involved in the RTD board elections. They’ve given what Jones described as “a modest amount of support,” financially, to some candidates through their small donor committee. And in addition to encouraging union members to spend time going knocking on doors on behalf of candidates, they’ve started endorsing those whose platforms align with their goals.
So far, they’ve endorsed JoyAnn Ruscha in District B, Julia Stewart in District C and Bob Wilson in District L. What do they all have in common? A passion for supporting labor and working-class families, as well as a belief that RTD can solve problems by redirecting resources rather than cutting services, Jones said.
ATU Local 1001 has also taken calls from candidates they haven’t yet had time to sit down with yet.
“We know these are important races and RTD has a big budget and a big responsibility,” Jones said, “and in our opinion the current management there is not doing a very good job of directing the resources within the RTD to keep up service and treat employees with the respect they deserve.”
Pass programs and equity
A pass program overhaul will be out of the RTD board’s hands very soon. It goes to the board committee on Sept. 11, then to the full board for approval during its regular monthly meeting on Sept. 18. After that, RTD begins to implement the changes and it’s in the hands of RTD staff.
The issues the pass programs will attempt to address, though, are very much on the minds of transportation advocates, and their success or failure will be ongoing concerns.
As we’ve already covered, there’s a lot to these pass program changes. Essentially, a proposal before the current board suggests 40 to 50 percent discounts for low-income riders, 70 percent discounts and free passes for youth, and the adjustments to regular fares and passes necessary to balance the budget. (Follow the link for much, much more on that.) The process was carried out by a 26-person working group, including RTD Transit Equity Manager Michael Washington, who has spoken to Denverite about the challenges of balancing everyone’s needs.
At Mile High Connects, a partnership of metro Denver organizations focused on transit equity, they’re keeping a close watch on what happens next.
“Right now, since about 2013, the key issue that Mile High Connects has been concerned with is definitely transit affordability —transit affordability for our most vulnerable populations,” said Deyanira Zavala, program coordinator at Mile High Connects. “… At the core of our work has been equity — racial equity, environmental equity, healthy equity and economic equity. Each of those intersects with transportation in some fashion.”
Mile High Connects had one representative on the working group, and Zavala says they plan to help RTD with implementation in any way they can.
In the meantime, Mile High Connects partners like 9to5 Colorado and Working Families have been meeting with board candidates to discuss their platforms and priorities.
More on the candidates
As of noon on Aug. 23, the Colorado Secretary of State’s website indicated that 18 candidate petitions had been approved.
- JoyAnn Keener Ruscha
- Shontel Lewis
- Chris Martinez
- Bonnie “Ernest” Archuleta
- Angie Rivera-Malpiede
- Julia Stewart
- Eliot Tipton
- Vince Buzek
- Jerry Jaramillo
- Paul D. Solano
- Troy L. Whitmore
- Shelley Cook
- Phil Munsterman
- Bob Wilson
- Margaret (Peggy) A. Catlin
- Brad K. Evans
- Jennifer Hope
- Lynn Guissinger
Streetsblog was on hand and live streaming at an RTD candidate forum Tuesday evening. You can watch it all here. As Dave Sachs reports, the forum was hosted by the Denver Regional Mobility & Action Council. Bonnie “Ernest” Archuleta, the incumbent in District C, and Gerald Jaramillo, who is running in District K, were the only candidates absent.
For reference, here’s who makes up the board now.