Is RTD in a death spiral? (And other Denver transit questions, answered)

From the Wu-Tang Clan Commemorative Gravel Pit to safety on trains, we break down the RTD AMA-style.
8 min. read
A woman wearing a black jacket and suitcase about to board an RTD train.
RTD board member Shontel Lewis waits for an A Line train to take her to Denver International Airport. Jan. 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Transportation reporter Nathaniel Minor has been spending more time researching RTD than any human should (because of a podcast), so he did what people do to blow off excess knowledge: He told Reddit to ask him anything. Here are some of the best questions and answers.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why is there no train through Cap Hill? Your podcast mentions reasons for other lines being killed, but I'd love to know why one of the densest parts of the city was never considered.

Nate: I wrote about this for Denverite last week. tl;dr: because people didn't want them.

What's a city that Denver should aspire to look like regarding public transit and everything that surrounds it?

I know everyone that's been to Europe or Asia raves about their transit, and rightfully so. But their cities just look different - in general, they didn't sprawl and build highways through the middle of cities like we did here. Gas is more expensive, etc. So I think it's interesting that a leading public transit expert says U.S. transit agencies should envy Canada, not Europe.

For example, as Christopher Yuen explains, "Canadian transit isn't cuter, sexier, or more 'demand responsive' than transit in the U.S. There is simply more of it, so more people ride, so transit is more deeply embedded in the culture and politics."

But really, I think it comes down to what kind of city we want to live in. If we keep sprawling outward and requiring every business and new apartment to have lots of parking, it's going to be very difficult to have a top-notch transit system. Because we'll be building a city for cars. The alternative - where there are more homes and businesses on/near existing transit corridors, and more space on city streets for transit + cycling, etc. - is possible too. Yes, this alternative requires RTD run more service. But it also needs the city and state that control those streets, control zoning rules, etc., to allow such changes.

You haven't mentioned the Central Extension of the L line up Downing to 38th/Blake. Is that just as dead as the B line completion?

My colleague Kyle at Denverite just wrote about this. People in the neighborhood want it, but -- stop me if you've heard this before -- RTD doesn't have the money for it.

Are there any proposals to extend the G Line all the way to downtown Golden? 

I've thought about this too, since that track goes straight into downtown. I've never heard of anything formal.

Did you learn anything about the proposed gondola?

The gondola! I don't, but I've asked the city.

If you could turn the Wu-Tang Clan Commemorative Gravel Pit into something, what would it be and why?

If money were no object: I would make it the entrance to the new subway line I would build from downtown Denver to downtown Englewood.

In the real world: Maybe plant some trees and make it an extension of the park across the street? Or, you know, some affordable housing.

(Here's the background on this, for the uninitiated.)

Is RTD in a death spiral? Fares are just getting more expensive, their service levels are severely cut back, workers are unhappy, riders are unhappy...

The situation is not as dire as it was in 2020/early 2021. RTD is doing a fare study now, and the CEO telegraphed that she wants to lower them. It looks like big raises are coming that might help shore up the workforce. And while the budget is not great, at least it's looking more stable.

But yeah - they're planning on just 85% of pre-pandemic service levels for the foreseeable future. That's not great. But it's going to feel better than the 60-70% we've been at for two years now.

How is RTD currently funded? What percentage is fares vs taxes? How does that compare to cities of a similar size, both in the US and globally? What could the leaders of RTD do with more funding, and how much would that impact the average person in RTD territory (both financially and with improved service)?

RTD gets most of its funding from a .6% sales tax for the "base system" (OG rail lines, bus system) and a .4% FasTracks sales tax for the new trains and the Flatiron Flyer. Pre-pandy, fares covered ~25% of expenses. That figure is lower now, with fewer people riding.

Transit hasn't paid for itself for the last 70 years or more (streetcar lines were mostly private companies that went bankrupt as cities sprawled, governments built highways, and more people bought cars). Today, transit is thought of not as a money-making proposition but a public good. Of course, opinions on that can vary too.

Transit is funded differently everywhere. If you really want to get into the weeds of how different countries do it, check the tables starting on page 94 of this study. But basically: funding and policies reflect priorities. The US spends more on highways than transit and subsidizes auto travel through low gas taxes and parking minimums. European countries do the opposite.

As far as what RTD would do with more money: They are working on a "mobility plan for the future" through its "Reimagine RTD" effort right now. So we'll have to see. But we know that they want to finish the leftover FasTracks lines, build some BRT lines, and up the frequency of service in the region's densest areas.

Do you think that RTD could succeed by focusing more of its efforts on building out a bigger, nicer, safer, comprehensive bus system? Is there any effort at RTD to look forward 10-20 years to what 2040 Denver might want and need rather than stay focused on what 2005 Denver thought it needed?

It depends on what the definition of "succeed" is. Which sounds like a very basic question, but there are competing interests at play here. Should RTD run more service across its entire district (city, suburbs, rural), or in the densest places where there are more people? The former keeps the suburbs happy, the latter would probably lead to higher ridership. I wrote a piece on this a few years ago. Also, RTD staff are proposing a shift to the latter. More money would lessen the tension here, but RTD doesn't have that.

And yes, they are! The ongoing Reimagine RTD effort is looking at that. But the unfinished FasTracks lines are certainly an impediment to that. An RTD staffer told me:

"The world has changed since 2004. And we're trying to deal with that changed world with the expectations of 2004 ... It's a conflict for us. And as a staff, we're trying to deal with that. Because I do think that if we were to do the same thing we did in 2004 today, it would be a much different look."

What is the upcoming Colfax BRT to be called and why isn't it the Neon Line?

A missed opportunity for sure. (Though Colfax does not have the neon it once did.) You can take a survey now and tell the city what you want it to be called. The options are:

  • Lynx
  • Pronto
  • Comet
  • Runner

Is there a world where Denver forms its own city-wide transit service and RTD either folds or becomes a suburban commuter service?

Denver is very gingerly stepping into the transit game with its Montbello shuttle. We'll have to see if it expands in a meaningful way. RTD folding seems very unlikely -- they are the recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in sales tax revenue every year, and have debt obligations in the billions of dollars.

I've had discussions amongst my coworkers and friends about using RTD instead of Uber or Lyft that continually circle back to a fear for safety. I've never felt like my safety was in jeopardy. Still, more often than not, there is a rider who makes me uncomfortable, usually because of their obvious drug use, so I do understand why people don't use the system if they have other options. My question is whether RTD plans to alleviate some of these safety concerns regarding a significant portion of the current ridership?

RTD's CEO has said repeatedly that she sees safety/drug use/homelessness/etc -- especially around Union Station -- as societal issues that RTD cannot fix alone. So she says RTD is working with the city, DPD, etc. What exactly is coming out of that just yet isn't clear to me beyond a whole lot of arrests. In the long run, RTD wants to minimize the number of private security guards they hire and expand its own police department.

What is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything?

The 15 bus on East Colfax.

Check out Ghost Train, the podcast Nate and other CPRites produced about transit in Colorado.

You power Denverite!

If you love what we do, donate today to support our essential and delightful local news.

Recent Stories