Columnists, Denver, Featured, Jon Caldara, Transit, Transportation, Uncategorized

Caldara: Imagine if RTD put mobility ahead of empire building

The Regional Transportation District’s ridership numbers are down some 5% since 2015, which is an incredible feat given that the city’s population has exploded nearly 20% in the last decade.

In any private sector endeavor, this would signal a Fastrack to bankruptcy. Of course, government doesn’t have customers. It has captive taxpayers. So, no surprise then that RTD’s operating budget has ballooned 44% since 2015. That’s over $200 million more per year and growing.

With 44% more of our money, RTD’s ridership is down 5%?

RTD’s general manager says they are embarking on a process to “totally reimagine the system” in order to create the “mobility plan of the future.”

Good for them, a worthy exercise and I wish them the best. However, it’s not an accident that government didn’t invent the iPhone. “Reimagining” isn’t a core governmental function. “Reimagining” with other people’s money has little risk and accountability, unlike the private sector.

Just how would Apple reimagine its products if they knew that even if they got it totally wrong, they’d still rake in more money? If they introduced the iTurd and it sucked so bad they lost 5% of their customers, would their budget still swell 44%?

RTD did not imagine Uber and Lyft. In fact, RTD fought any and all efforts to allow innovation and competition to its empire including carpooling for profit and competitive contracting of bus services.

Before RTD imagines the next Betamax video recorder, New Coke, or Frastracks, let’s reimagine three better scenarios for them.

Some imagine RTD’s over-riding goal is to reduce traffic congestion.

So, envision an alternative universe where that 44% growth in operating revenue wasn’t spent on transit at all, which carries a scant few percentage points of daily commutes. Imagine it was instead spent on our dilapidated road infrastructure. That would be well over $2 billion in just a decade.

Sadly, RTD and the car hating, anti-mobility crowd don’t actually want free-flowing traffic. They believe increased transit ridership must be achieved by gunpoint — as if turning traffic lanes into bike lanes and urban growth boundaries has helped traffic or RTD.

Some imagine RTD completing the broken promises of their 2004 tax swindle, Fastracks, by actually finishing the rail lines.

Before we fancy RTD finishing Fastracks, we could fantasize they keep their promises from the original tax election in the early 1970s. That promise was to build 119 miles of fixed-rail transit and then lower their sales tax by half by 1980. Today RTD’s sales tax is four times higher than that broken promise.

Finishing Fastracks is only an operational change away, but the RTD Board has no backbone to do it.

About half of their bus service is competitively contracted out to private operators. Compared to the in-house service the savings is about 40% for the exact same service. RTD has borrowed against that savings to bring forward much of the funding they needed to build the rail they have.

RTD could contract out the rest of the bus service, which is how it is done in most of Europe, then bond on that savings as well and finish Fastracks quickly.

And then there are some of us who imagine that RTD’s primary mission is to give mobility to those who have little mobility choice — those who can’t afford their own car or Uber.

The promise of government transit wasn’t to subsidize middle-class guys with cars to avoid paying for parking when they went to a Rockies game. It was to liberate poor people from the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

Physical mobility is the key to financial mobility.

If we gave a darn about the poor, handicapped and elderly, we’d change how RTD provides service completely. RTD would charge all passengers the full real fare for a ride, not the tiny fraction of the actual cost as they do now. They would instead give our massive tax subsidy directly to the poor for their own mobility choices, public or private.

Think of it as food stamps for transportation. A means-tested smart card or phone app that allows the user to spend their subsidy on an RTD ride (at full price), or an Uber ride, or taxi, or heaven forbid, to help buy a car.

Just imagine if we put people before RTD’s own empire building.

Dream on.

Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.


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