Transportation  July 29, 2022

Tayer: Transportation issues call for reimagined RTD

If you’ve had a bad day, there isn’t a much better way to blow-off steam than to complain about government. Why not? Somehow the caricatured image of hapless bureaucrats and self-serving politicians just makes government an easy target for disparagement, disgruntlement and frustration. 

Recently, the Regional Transportation District, with its rash of challenges ranging from driver shortages and reduced service to personal safety concerns, has been a favorite target of our wrath. It would be easy to pile-on in this column, but I refrain . . . because the transit services RTD provides are far too important to our environment, social equity, quality of life and our economy to simply dismiss with cathartic snark. 

John Tayer, Boulder Chamber CEO

Instead, we need to reimagine an RTD that makes the most effective use of its limited resources in providing convenient, efficient and safe mobility options for our region.

First, how important are RTD transit services to Boulder’s economy? Very. Prior to the COVID pandemic, we had roughly 70,000 employees commuting into town. Even with transit trips accounting for roughly 10% of all commuter travel in and out of town, traffic conditions were intolerable and impacting the ability of businesses to recruit and retain their workforce.

Today, with the pandemic taking a more manageable turn, motor vehicle counts and associated traffic on regional corridors is as high as 87% of pre-COVID levels. For a variety of reasons, that auto traffic is far outpacing the return to transit service, which stands at about only 48% of the passengers it served in 2019. Without a strong transit system to accommodate Boulder’s returning workforce, we risk even more extreme traffic congestion.

Sitting on a task force RTD created to evaluate the agency’s future service options, Reimagine RTD, I got a first-hand perspective on the enormity of the challenge it faces in meeting our expectations here in Boulder and across the region. First, RTD has by far the largest district among its peer agencies, covering 2,342 square miles, and the lowest population density of 1,247 people per square mile. No other peer agencies come close to these numbers, with Houston’s METRO being the next largest district at 1,306 square miles and Salt Lake City with a population density per square mile of 2,556. 

Given the politics at RTD, which I’m intimately familiar with as a former board director, there’s a temptation to appease constituents and their elected leadership across the district by providing transit service to the far reaches and least densely populated areas, even if it fares poorly on a ridership efficiency basis. It’s a model that “spreads the peanut butter” thinly across the region, stretching RTD’s capacity to provide more frequent and efficient service along higher density corridors.

And that peanut butter, under current forecasted budget conditions, will get a lot thinner. The agency’s revenue will soon dip well below expenditures. RTD certainly can consider seeking additional taxpayer funding, and there is a TABOR override proposal that seems to make sense. Yet, even with additional funding, I’m not convinced that continuing the same service model is what we want when no one seems to be satisfied.

Through the Reimagine RTD process, a clear message has emerged: Emphasize regional in the Regional Transit District! RTD has enough trouble on its hands operating its regional backbone service, with an incomplete FasTracks system and difficulty returning to pre-pandemic frequencies and routes. Think about what reliable regional service that operates frequently along major travel corridors would do for RTD’s passenger numbers and image. I’m also sure that improving security at RTD stations along these routes would have an additional beneficial impact.

As to the other local transit services RTD provides, another theme has emerged though the Reimagine RTD process: Partnerships! As an RTD board director, I sat through hours of testimony from frustrated constituents and their political leadership complaining that RTD was cutting local bus routes. Let’s turn the table and give local communities the chance to apply matching RTD dollars toward local transit service that they believe best meets their service needs. I am very sure Boulder County and our supplemental transit providers, such as Via, would make highly efficient and effective use of those resources.

Our government bodies take a lot of hits from their constituents. Yet, when it comes to RTD, we can ill afford casual disdain. Instead, let’s reimagine what we expect from RTD services and how they deliver it. Putting the “regional” back in RTD and encouraging local partnerships might even brighten a bad day. 

If you’ve had a bad day, there isn’t a much better way to blow-off steam than to complain about government. Why not? Somehow the caricatured image of hapless bureaucrats and self-serving politicians just makes government an easy target for disparagement, disgruntlement and frustration. 

Recently, the Regional Transportation District, with its rash of challenges ranging from driver shortages and reduced service to personal safety concerns, has been a favorite target of our wrath. It would be easy to pile-on in this column, but I refrain . . . because the transit services RTD provides are far too important to our environment, social…

Related Content