//RTD bus in Denver. Photo from Shutterstock.
Denver is on track to grow explosively over the next decade, with its estimated population reaching nearly 4 million, according to the Denver Economic Development Corporation.
Bottom line: Denver is a pretty cool place to live, work and play. But with an influx of residents, how do you address traffic concerns, air quality issues and safety problems?
Ms. Mayhem asked questions about COVID-19, climate change and overall safety of Regional Transportation District candidates Tim Nelson and incumbent Kate Williams, who has served as District A director since 2016. According to the City of Denver, District A services nearly 200,000 residents each year.
We also reached out to Kyle Bradell, the third candidate on the ticket, but did not receive a response.
Here’s the Q&A with Nelson and Williams. Their responses are edited for length and clarity.
COVID-19 has dramatically affected Colorado’s economy and way of life. What is your plan to lessen its impact on the RTD budget and its passengers? How will RTD maintain a level of safety as COVID-19 remains a part of life? And finally, how is RTD monitoring mask-wearing?
Williams- The best way to lessen COVID’s impact on RTD’s budget is to let people know that all of the studies world-wide show that public transit is not an environment where people are contracting the virus—that, in fact, public transit is safer and cleaner than many other public spaces.
RTD is cleaning our vehicles daily with the most modern systems possible, limiting the amount of passengers based on the size of the vehicle, continuing to install shields for our drivers, reviewing our routes—all to lessen COVID’s impact on our passengers.
I support continuing those processes. The mayor of Denver and the governor of Colorado are mandating masks at all times except outside of your own home. Public transit would fall into that category—and everyone riding RTD’s buses, trains or vans should be wearing an acceptable face covering. RTD has been giving out masks and hand sanitizer. We are also regulating the number of passengers to allow for safe social distancing. We test our drivers before they start their day. We will continue those protocols.
RTD drivers are not enforcers, they are drivers. They cannot be transporting people safely if they are attempting to enforce face coverings. It is up to each of us to cover our mouths and noses—not to protect ourselves but to protect others from any diseases that we might be carrying. I wear my mask and carry spare masks and offer them to anyone that I see not wearing one.
Nelson- RTD faces exceptional challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic and recovering from it will be a process that requires thoughtful policies and innovations. From a financial standpoint, the most urgent step is the redistribution of resources to the most popular routes. The pandemic has led to significant differences in ridership between local routes and regional routes, Flatiron Flyer and light rail. Essential workers and transit-dependent riders continue to use the system while others work from home or use alternative transportation. RTD should redirect resources from those less-ridden routes to its more popular ones for an indefinite period of time. Increasing frequency on these routes and making adjustments to improve convenience, reliability and speed will service current riders and attract new ones. It will also present the best possibility for cost recovery.
A secondary step is to examine the [FasTracks Internal Savings Account] contributions and reserves. I do not believe it aligns with RTD’s mission to prioritize these projects when there are proposed service and employee cuts.
From a safety standpoint, measures have been adequate but could be improved, especially with the winter months ahead. On the positive side, sanitization frequency has been increased, and the air filters on vehicles are demonstrated to be effective. Still, my recent rides on RTD and comments from others suggest that health guidelines like mask-wearing and social distancing are being treated casually. This approach not only endangers riders and operators but reduces public trust in transit. So, I would advocate that RTD implement onboard safety guidelines to indicate appropriate social distancing and more strictly enforce mask-wearing by having more personnel on board, providing masks and imposing fines if necessary.
What initiatives would you like to implement at RTD to lower greenhouse gas emissions, increase ridership and relieve traffic congestion?
Williams- As we continue to be affected by COVID and to be forced to reduce routes and services, I would like to see more partnerships with municipalities and alternative transit carriers. I am working with some county staff who are trying to fill routes that are being cut—together, we are working to see if they can lease unused RTD equipment and run those routes for their riders, with their drivers and their gas. RTD is like you—as we all “hunker down” to ride out this crisis, RTD has been forced into reduced ridership, reduced funding and reduced service that is not our primary choice. All that we—the members of the board, the staff, the drivers, the mechanics, the customer service folks—want to do is provide transportation. We are based on moving people. We can move people with less pollution, more efficiency and less congestion, but we cannot force that choice on anyone. I would like to see the entire state of Colorado move into fees based on vehicle miles traveled per person—we actually have the technology to do that now. That would motivate all of us into supporting and developing more shared mobility options, and into using more public transportation.
Nelson- RTD implementing initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and relieve traffic congestion will create a more sustainable metro Denver and lead to increased ridership. That cars account for about 50% of greenhouse gas emissions in the region while buses account for less than 1% suggests residents do not see transit as a reasonable alternative to a single-occupancy vehicle at present. Tackling these significant challenges begins with a more desirable transit network. RTD must build a system that people actually want to ride. It starts with increasing frequency on its most popular routes and prioritizing high-density areas that allow for walking or biking to transit. When it does so, residents in those areas will be able to use transit as effortlessly as they do their cars instead of viewing it as an encumbrance. In areas where there is not high ridership or density is lower, RTD should look to creative solutions to incentivize transit usage. Increasing the number of vanpools, offering vouchers to/from transit hubs and modifying FlexRide services would go a long way to getting people on board.
Next, RTD should examine its fare structure. Though the cost of solely using transit is often less than owning and operating a car, the reality is that many residents will use the two modes in combination. When RTD has expensive fares and frequency is waning, it is understandable why people opt for the cars that they are already paying for and will move them directly. Fares should be affordable throughout the service area to encourage ridership. Finally, RTD should pursue grants to gradually transition its fleet from diesel to electric. The environmental, health and economic benefits of this transition would be tremendous. However, outside funding sources will be necessary until electric vehicles become cost-competitive to purchase and maintain.
More Coloradans would like to bike but may be scared to do so because of busy traffic and big buses. What RTD efforts would you like to unveil to better share the roads and reduce crashes? More bus-bike lanes?
Williams- I ride my bike all over District A—I also put it on the trains and right on the front of RTD buses. But RTD doesn’t control the roads—that’s back on the municipalities and on the Colorado Department of Transportation. RTD is working with several cities and counties, as well as the state agency, on roadway projects such as the Colfax BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) project. Remember that RTD doesn’t do roads or highways—we don’t even do bus stop facilities, which are on city rights-of-way. We do buses and trains. But your advocacy with your local officials can help to move bicycle and pedestrian projects to the forefront, and in my work with Bicycle Colorado, Denver Streets Partnership, The Community Active Living Coalition and others, I bring RTD’s perspective to their work and their initiatives back to RTD.
Nelson- As someone who does not own a car and primarily relies on transit, bike and foot to navigate metro Denver, I understand this concern. Denver residents chose to bike and walk for less than 7% of 2019 commuter trips in Denver, but those two modes accounted for over 35% of traffic deaths. That is unacceptable. Of the 2019 fatal traffic crashes in Denver, reckless/careless driving and failure to yield or stop were the primary causes. Excessive speed is a reality on Denver streets as well. So, I would disagree with the premise that buses and trains are the primary sources of concern.
Nonetheless, RTD should advocate for Denver and surrounding municipalities to make infrastructure changes to allow for safer biking and walking. Promoting a safe, multimodal lifestyle is not only better for residents, but RTD as an agency. There are three critical infrastructure changes that would be especially beneficial: Added bus-bike lanes—especially on arterial streets as exist on 15th and 17th DowntownBroadway and Lincoln, side boarding islands for RTD passengers, and more crossing signage and high-visibility crosswalks for pedestrians.
Since RTD does not control these spaces, its role would be as an advocate. There are a number of agencies, including Denver Streets Partnership, Bicycle Colorado and Bike Streets, who are doing excellent work in creating more people-friendly streets. A unified set of voices would be powerful in pushing metro Denver to make these changes in an expedited fashion.
Why should voters choose you to serve as District A director for the RTD?
Williams- Transit is what I do. I don’t teach school, I don’t drive for Uber. Transit is my passion and my career. I am involved all day, every day, in the expansion and improvement of transit options. I run a travel training program for the immigrant community. I attended every meeting of the Pass Program Work Group that led to RTD’s income-based discount program. My organization has developed a transit app that is specifically designed for the greater Denver region—the same footprint as RTD—and is free and simple to use. I participate in a wide variety of transit forums, committees and task forces. I will continue to do all of that even if I am not re-elected—but I’d like to continue to bring that expertise and community involvement to the RTD Board of Directors for another four years.
Nelson- I am running for the RTD District A Board position because public transit has strong potential in Denver. When done right, buses and trains are not just “people-movers” but vehicles to greater economic equality, a healthier population and a more sustainable future. Unfortunately, that is not the reality that exists with RTD right now. As a rider and educator, I have seen our system has fallen short of that ideal through misaligned priorities and decision-making that does not put riders first. It is clear that District A needs a voice who can bring progressive values and innovative ideas to move RTD toward its full potential as a transit agency.
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