By Jill Carstens
Beginning in early 2024, bus and light rail riders will receive rate reductions based on RTD’s most extensive ridership study in its history.
“This is a monumental effort over the past two years,” RTD General Manager and CEO Debra A. Johnson said during the board’s February Finance and Planning Committee meeting.
Johnson said the goals were to make ridership more affordable and to simplify the fare structure, with equity as the priority. The study, consisting of three rounds of outreach, found most of the responses noted high and complicated fares.
RTD conducted focus groups with an emphasis on engaging diverse and underrepresented populations through their partnerships. Surveys were conducted on site and in person at bus and rail stops, door to door, through focus groups and online in English and Spanish.
Johnson added that an additional 21 safe harbor languages were accommodated through translators to get thorough feedback. Sunnyside resident Bradley Abeyta uses the A and E light rail lines regularly to get to work as well as the 38 bus line to attend sporting events.
His main concerns about the fare complexity mirrored the survey.
“It isn’t clear where you can go on the regional pass,” he said.
His impression was that current RTD fares are more expensive than in other comparable cities and was hoping for an overall reduction. RTD Civil Rights Director Carl Green Jr. explained how the surveys influenced the resulting offering.
“We consolidated all of the feedback to reflect community needs,” he said. Single rides to the airport would still be $10, but the monthly pass would include those rides. Public comments taken at the meeting showed overall enthusiasm for the efforts.
Molly McKinley, policy director for Denver Streets Partnership, shared her excitement for the fare reductions but encouraged future partnerships with the state for funding to help lower rates further.
She mentioned how state funds last August contributed to the success of the free ride campaign, in which ridership increased gradually, but significantly, afterward. RTD reported it had about 5.2 million boardings in July, but it saw about 6.3 million in August when the rides were free, and slowed down to about 5.7 million in September when fares resumed.
Jaime Lewis, transit advisor for the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition, applauded the notable discounts for disabled populations, 65-and-older riders, and Medicare and LIVE participants, as well as the substantial discount of the monthly pass. He encouraged the board to market these changes to garner new riders. Michael Guzman, RTD board director for District C, said the study and resulting fare structure proposal is a great accomplishment.
“We are taking a bit of a financial hit by reducing the fares hoping to offset costs with the projected increase in ridership,” he said. “Additionally, more people on the bus could mean less people on the highways and the strain that causes on Denver’s infrastructure.”
RTD will continue to offer the Eco Pass, he added, hoping to increase its use and efficiency, supporting the state’s goal of reaching reduced emissions by 2030. During the meeting several area directors voiced their input on the proposal.
Erik Davidson, District I director, applauded an effort to offer zero fares to youth, proposing that RTD continue to seek to diversify its funding with unique stakeholder partners to maintain that option.
Bob Broom, District F director, emphasized that future research should aim toward gathering data to measure comparison savings with driving a car paired with the benefit of decreased emissions from increased ridership.
Next steps will include finalizing the proposal in April and putting it out for public comment in May. Guzman added that RTD will check its equity analysis with guidance from the Federal Transit Commission.
After implementation of the new fare structure, ongoing assessments will happen to gauge the efficiency of most-used and lesser-used routes. The board will give its final recommendation in July. The rate changes would go into effect early 2024.
Guzman emphasized the continued importance of community feedback during this time. Residents may offer feedback on RTD’s website at rtd-denver.com/farestudy and view the entire report at farefeedback.rtd-denver.com.