Featured, Peter Blake, Transportation, Uncategorized

Blake: Let competition be the driver

Transportation officials in the Denver metro area are considering spending more than $100 million to reduce bus riders’ commute time by 10 to 12 minutes along the busy East Colfax corridor.

Could the commute be improved for much less cost simply by introducing competition along the route?

Local, regional and state officials have proposed introducing “bus rapid transit” along a 10-mile stretch between the Auraria campus in downtown Denver and the Anschutz Medical Center in Aurora.

One key element: buses would be given exclusive access to the curb lane during rush hours. Presumably that would delay commuters in private autos — not to mention trucks.

Tykus Holloway, project manager, said $115 million was the “conceptual cost estimate.” Since the plan would require 22 new buses, a maintenance facility for them, improvements to stop areas, lane striping, some repaving of outside lanes, fare cards and off-board ticketing, that may be a lowball figure.

The “bus rapid transit” plan was selected over alternatives such as streetcars and newer buses that don’t get exclusive lane use during rush hours. The choice was made after a $3 million study, two-thirds of which was paid for by the federal government, and one-third by Denver, said Genevieve Hutchison, RTD’s coordinator on the project.

The Regional Transportation District is involved but Denver transit officials are spearheading the effort, along with Aurora, the Denver Regional Council of Governments, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration.

Local officials are hoping the FTA will pick up most of the cost. RTD doesn’t plan to ask voters to increase its sales tax bite, and it cannot use the money already committed to the completion of four light rail projects now under construction. But there is the possibility of Denver establishing a taxing district, or tax increment financing, along the route, said Hutchison.

The new buses are supposed to enable faster boarding, especially by those in wheelchairs. They won’t be quite as low to the ground as those serving the 16th Street Mall, but the front ends would “kneel,” as Holloway put it.

Before financing is sought, officials say more study is needed, especially of the impact of closing one of the two driving lanes during rush hour. Public comment is also being sought.

But public transportation is changing rapidly these days, and it might be time to try other, less expensive experiments for moving riders along major routes.

For instance, Uber and Lyft, “transportation networking” companies that the legislature decided to let operate under light regulation by the Public Utilities Commission, have been cutting costs and expanding services in recent weeks.

UberX, for instance, which lets customers summon privately owned vehicles for rides via a smartphone app, recently cut prices by 20 percent in many markets, including Denver. According to Uber attorney Greg Sopkin, that puts its prices below that of taxis.

Both companies are also experimenting with carpooling. Customers can share a ride, and split costs, with someone else who happens to need a ride to work along the same or a similar route. That leads to a further rate reduction.

What the companies are trying to do is make it unnecessary for some people to own a car. And it’s possible that the pooling plan could siphon some riders off Colfax and other major routes.

But Uber and Lyft don’t like to deal in cash; everything is done via a credit card. Their system wouldn’t make it feasible for them to operate consistently along major bus routes, where cash must be acceptable.

This would seem to leave an opening for taxis — which have been complaining about the new competition — to expand their markets. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be allowed, even encouraged, to stray beyond hotels, airports and other normal habitats and accept more street hails.

Street hails used to be illegal altogether in Denver until a few years ago, but were permitted in time for the Democratic convention of 2008 — so long as the cabs sported special strobe lights.

But there’s no reason why taxi firms shouldn’t compete for more business. They might operate jitneys and slightly larger vehicles along major routes, picking up as many passengers as they can hold, possibly for a set price.

They have the added advantage of being identifiable through signs and colors, which is essential for the safety of passengers not working through a smartphone app. What’s more, they should be allowed to use regular bus stops for picking up and discharging customers, in order to minimize traffic disruption. The stops don’t belong to the RTD.

The RTS may not like additional competition, but the point is to move riders as inexpensively as possible. Public transport tends to lose money on every route and can’t survive without sales taxes. Why not cut RTD’s losses by allowing private companies to operate wherever they can make money?

It’s quite possible that service along Colfax and other routes could be improved without having to spend $100-200 million more in tax money.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.

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