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RTD director says looming layoffs, diminished service open door for transit vouchers

DENVER — As the Regional Transportation District (RTD) faces budget cuts that are likely to mean massive layoffs, accounting for more than one-quarter of its current workforce, one member of the board says if the door was ever open to discuss a voucher system, that time is now.

District M Director Natalie Menten says finding a way to service those who are transit dependent while still saving RTD money should be at the top of the directors’ priorities.

“The door won’t be any more open than it is now,” Menten said of vouchers as a possible alternative in the face of up to $166 million in cuts, that will also include a redeployment of service.

To understand what vouchers are and how they would help, Menten said, people must understand how RTD got to this spot in the first place.

Low ridership, high subsidies

According to Menten, RTD is in the midst of a roughly $4 million study called “Reimagine RTD,” that is the result of years of budget woes, and not having enough drivers to cover the advertised services. So, staff has been working on the plan that would optimize service, which includes closing routes in underutilized areas.

“We had budget problems before COVID,” Menten said. “You can blame those on FasTracks and no one ever wanting to reduce service or only preferring it when it was in someone else’s district.”

When COVID hit, the budget woes became greater due to a significant drop in ridership, which in turn flipped the previous problem from not enough drivers to too many drivers.

“The budget picture just got worse,” Menten said. “We did a partial reduction of services to ‘Saturday service,’ all week with fewer runs and fewer routes. Staff wanted further reductions, but some directors freaked out. So we’ve been stalling Reimagine the last two months.”

Reimagine would have removed routes and reduced services further beginning in January, but RTD directors agreed to shelve the long-term goals of Reimagine and not reduce services more than they have under the COVID reductions.

Those reductions now mean more than 800 RTD employees are facing layoffs, and those who are fortunate enough to keep their jobs will face furloughs and pay cuts.

“We have to do something,” Menten said. “We have low ridership and high subsidies. Let’s take that and put it into areas where there is more demand for service.”

Menten was referring to FlexRide, a service provided by RTD that runs from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. in low ridership areas, where operating costs far exceed revenue. For example, a route in Louisville generates just under $11,000 per year in revenue, but to operate that route costs RTD nearly $350,000. In 2019, FlexRide’s total operating costs for 23 routes was just under $11 million while collecting slightly more than $500,000 in revenue. That averaged about $23 per rider, per ride that RTD subsidized in excess for the service.

Moving to a voucher system

Menten says there is a better way. Vouchers. Menten said RTD could close those routes and instead use 25 percent of that $10 million in subsidies for $7 vouchers that riders could use on another form of transportation, whether that be taxis, Uber/Lyft, or gas for a private vehicle. Across the entire FlexRide system, RTD averages $21 a ride, which would instead be three rides if RTD switched to a voucher system

“I very strongly support limiting the subsidies on the FlexRide services,” Menten said. “They have small boundaries, maybe five miles from end to end, and maybe 20-30 people in the area use it, but millions that go into. I have always argued against them. I even got rid of the one of my own area.”

Menten said there are logistics that would need to be worked out, such as is it offered to every single taxpayer, or only those who are currently using it, or only to those that are transit dependent? And what does it look like? Is it simply a prepaid debit card with money on it to use on another service or vouchers for specific services where agreements with RTD have been established?

Menten has had a conversation with Lyft Colorado to see what they might consider, as the ridesharing company currently offers similar type service in several areas including San Clemente CA, St Louis, Dallas, Washington DC., Boston, and the San Francisco Bay Area, Menten said. Media relations representatives from Lyft had not returned information requests from Complete Colorado as of press time.

“How do we hand them out,” Menten said. “Do we have drivers hand them two or three of these gift cards? That still cheats out the person who may not be riding on FlexRide, that’s where I get caught up in the details.”

She said her other issue is RTD wanting to play a role in implementing it.

“That’s a bigger problem,” Menten said. “The less we have RTD hands in it, the better because they create a bureaucracy.”

And she’s worried about paratransit services for disabled riders, which are offered within one-half mile of a fixed route. When those routes are eliminated, so will the paratransit routes.

“How do you utilize those vouchers for those who are the most transit dependent?” Menten said. “Wheelchair accessible vehicles through Lyft are limited. There are some hiccups but a direct voucher system has much more flexibility.”

But vouchers will offer a point A to point B service that will benefit many more people at one-quarter the cost, Menten said.

“We can cut the subsidies, lower the expenditures and everyone will have something that will work for them, like the single mother of three, working a catering gig who doesn’t get off until 11 at night when FlexRide wouldn’t help her anyway.”

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