RTD stopped collecting fares for health reasons. The move was a financial boon for people experiencing homelessness.

Now fares are coming back.
8 min. read
Joseph Lautrup boards a bus on June 29, 2020. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

During nearly three months without having to pay bus fare, Robert Bevill added to the savings he's put aside to get his car fixed.

The Regional Transportation District stopped collecting fares on April 5 so that passengers could board buses from the rear. Drivers, who sit next to the fare box up front, had been requesting fares be suspended because it helped them social distance from passengers amid the coronavirus outbreak that hit Denver in March.

While fares were suspended for health reasons, the move also was a financial boon for people such as Bevill, who is experiencing homelessness. RTD, whose budget was in trouble even before COVID-19, will resume collecting fares on Wednesday.

"I'm guessing now I'm going to have to get a bus pass," Bevill said. "It's going to hurt a lot of people if you have to start paying again."

Bevill spoke Monday morning as he waited for the No. 48 at a stop on Brighton Boulevard near the National Western Complex. He had spent the previous night in a National Western hall that opened as a men's shelter on April 9. The Denver Coliseum nearby opened as a women's shelter April 20. The new shelters have room for better social distancing and brought services to shared locations for people experiencing homelessness.

Bevill, who works as a painter, said coming up with $114 all at once for a monthly pass would be difficult, but that the unlimited rides that that would buy could end up saving him money. A full-fare RTD pass good for three hours is $3. A day pass is $6. Bevill did not know about the LiVE Program that RTD started last summer offering a 40 percent fare discount for people making 185 percent or less of the federal poverty limit, currently $12,760 for a single person.

RTD spokeswoman Christina Zazueta said, "We've got a lot of different discount options that we want people to be aware of."

In addition to LiVE, Zazueta pointed to discount fares for riders who are 65 and older, have disabilities or receive Medicare. Children under five who are riding with adults pay nothing, and people between the ages of 6 and 19 can also get discounts. Active-duty military can ride for free.

Before RTD's LiVE program, nonprofits and others had bought transit passes at a 50 percent discount that they could then donate to clients. Now nonprofits help clients register for LiVE's 40 percent discount. While LiVE was created in part to make discounts available to more riders by allowing them to sign up directly, nonprofits that support people experiencing homelessness say it has made it harder for some of the region's poorest residents to access discounted passes because of added bureaucratic hurdles and the reduction in the discount.

"It's been good for some people, but not necessarily all of our folks," said Tom Luehrs, whose St. Francis Center connects people experiencing homelessness to housing, jobs and other services.

Luehrs, who is St. Francis's executive director, said free RTD service in recent months has served a critical need.

"When people have greater mobility, many people can move toward a job or even move toward housing," he said.

He said service providers were looking for alternatives now. They could include a special shuttle service from the National Western and Coliseum shelters into central Denver.

"We had the free RTD, and now suddenly we don't," Luehrs said. "It's a gap that we have right now."

Bevill, who has a bad knee and uses a cane, said he was saving to repair his car, which a nephew had damaged in an accident a year ago.

"A lot of the time, even when I had a car, I still took the bus because gas could get so expensive," Bevill said.

Saving to get stable housing seemed out of reach. Bevill has been living in shelters since his marriage broke up last fall.

"I just can't afford to get my own place," Bevill said. "It's ridiculous. Just a one-bedroom is $1,400. One person can't afford that."

Bevill said he had worked 10- to 15-hour days every day last week painting exteriors and was headed into town to see when his employer would have more work for him.

Joseph Lautrup, who like Bevill had spent the night at the National Western shelter, was headed Monday morning to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless's Stout Street Health Center for an initial meeting with a doctor he hoped would be his primary care physician.

"I'm trying to be connected, to stay healthy, to stay alive," Lautrup said.

Lautrup said he has been living at Denver shelters since being paroled in February after serving a sentence for attempting to injure someone with a car following a fight. He also uses the bus to go on job interviews and search for permanent housing, he said.

He said he's done skilled and unskilled work at construction sites, washed dishes and worked in warehouses and as a janitor.

"There ain't no job I wouldn't take," he said. "The main concern is getting housing for me. I can map out where I'm going and how I'm going to get there from a home."

Monday morning, Lautrup and about a dozen other people waiting with him were unable to board two buses that already held as many passengers as they could while maintaining social distancing. Lautrup was already late for his doctor's appointment by the time the third bus rolled up. That one had room for him and Lautrup boarded, saying he needed to make a new appointment in person because he had no cell phone.

"A lot of people become late for parole, work, classes" because they can't get on buses. "And then they go back to jail," he said, explaining that failing to meet commitments such as meeting with parole officers can lead to revocation of parole.

Josh Geppelt is vice president for programs of the Denver Rescue Mission, which operates the shelter at National Western. Geppelt said a health clinic run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and job, housing and other services provided by case workers from his and other nonprofits cut down on some of the need to travel from the National Western and Coliseum shelters. But he said many people at the shelters still need to get to places such as St. Francis, as well as to work.

"We certainly haven't solved for everything," Geppelt said.

Geppelt said he was unaware of any plans to try to help offset the cost of commuting from National Western and the Coliseum, which he acknowledged were somewhat remote from central Denver. Geppelt added that service providers, like RTD, were contemplating a transition. The shelters set up because of the coronavius were likely to close in the next month or so, he said.

Wednesday, 20 participants in Denver Rescue Mission's Next Step program will return to the nonprofit's Lawrence Street facility in Five Points, which is reopening after having been closed in early April to free staff to run the National Western facility. The Next Step offers case management and other support to help men secure stable housing. The goal over the next few months is to gradually expand from 20 to 100 men, many now staying at National Western, taking part in Next Step at the Lawrence Street shelter. At 100 men, Lawrence Street will be at less than half its pre-pandemic capacity, Geppelt said, allowing the shelter to maintain social distancing.

Joni Gray, who had spent the night at the Coliseum shelter, was annoyed to see a bus pass her by Monday morning.

Gray said she'd been the only person waiting at a downtown stop recently when a driver pulled up. An electronic sign on his bus said it was full, "but the guy was cool enough to stop and let me on," Gray said.

Zazueta, the RTD spokeswoman, said buses would continue to limit passengers for the foreseeable future in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus,.

"Social distance and safety are still a priority," Zazueta said.

Zazueta said drivers who have to pass passengers can contact dispatch operators and request additional buses be sent out.

Plastic shields are being installed at drivers' seats to protect against coronavirus transmission from passengers, who are urged to wear masks. Drivers are required to wear masks. Zazueta said she had been out recently distributing masks and hand sanitizer to passengers as part of an awareness-raising campaign.

RTD serves all or part of seven counties in addition to Denver -- Boulder, Broomfield, Jefferson, Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas and Weld. Fares cover only part of the agency's operating costs. Ridership dropped as the coronavirus slowed the economy and created fear of traveling with others in buses and trains. RTD cut its service by about 40 percent in April and is unlikely to be able to restore routes and frequencies to pre-pandemic levels.

Even before the coronavirus, RTD had been struggling with high operations and maintenance costs for new train lines; disappointing sales tax revenues; an aging system; and a driver shortage.

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