It’s the worst of times for RTD but not necessarily for the new head of RTD. No one expects Debra Johnson to work miracles. The agency was on the ropes even before COVID-19. Now he’s on his knees.
If this Long Beach, Calif., Transplant can just get our local transportation hulk back on its feet, it will undoubtedly get a passing grade.
After all, no one honestly knows how transit will be affected in the long run by the pandemic. Will ridership rebound to pre-pandemic levels in a year, two years, never? Will remote work and the degraded image of city life indefinitely undermine its commuter base as the ridesharing industry continues to nibble its bread and butter?
However, not everything is out of RTD’s control. If Johnson is to leave a meaningful legacy, improving service for the greatest number of metro residents, there is a lot to be done.
Unfortunately, two of the most needed reforms will be controversial.
First, the agency must reallocate resources from low-traffic, high-subsidy services to corridors and urban areas where public transit is most in demand. Yes, the regional transportation district needs to protect a modest level of service throughout the sadly oversized 2,342 square mile district, but the agency is either interested in boosting ridership or it is not.
And if it doesn’t, we can think of it as yet another dysfunctional political institution, unwilling to solve the problems that everyone knows exist.
Second, RTD should abandon the official goal of building the FasTracks northwest rail line from Denver to Boulder to Longmont – and for that matter other improvements such as extending the southwest line. Even saving for those leads, let alone establishing a lead, will weigh like an anvil on the agency’s fiscal future.
But wouldn’t that mean going back on the promises made in the 2004 sales tax vote? Yes of course. RTD overpromised and cannot deliver. And he has already broken the promise to complete the planned railway construction in 12 years. Last year, RTD directors were considering options such as another tax hike that could allow the Northwest Line to be built before 2050 – yes, 2050 – and that was before COVID 19.
Governor Jared Polis, from the northwest of the district, reiterated this summer that RTD should continue the railroad to Longmont. But he also helped lead an accountability committee to provide solutions to RTD’s ridership malaise, which began long before COVID-19. It cannot have it both ways, unless of course the committee ends up recommending another tax hike and additional debt.
Speaking of debt, FasTracks is swimming in it. Of the $ 322 million forecast in 2021 from sales tax and FasTracks tariffs of 0.4%, according to documents prepared for the board at the end of March, $ 185 million is already committed for the service of debt. “We used a huge amount of debt to be able to move these projects forward,” said chief financial officer Heather McKillop, according to Colorado Public Radio. Another credit frenzy would further cripple the agency’s ability to spend on anything else.
Even in 2004, the northwest line was predicted to cost more than twice as much per passenger as any other rail corridor, and today the justification is even weaker. If the administrators are too disgusted to unplug themselves, they should submit a proposal to the voters.
The current advice is not without common sense. Last month, for example, he rejected by a 14-to-1 margin a proposal to redirect the $ 27 million a year he spends on security guards to social services, such as helping the homeless. . Although several administrators appeared open to a security overhaul, they apparently realized that removing the guards at a time when crime rates and fears about COVID-19 were rising amounted to an act of self-destruction.
Breaking with the past on funding priorities will of course be more difficult, but clarity may arise from crisis.
Contact Vincent Carroll at [email protected]
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