RTD to dig deeply into its fare structure with eye on affordability and equity

Paying six dollars for a roundtrip journey on an RTD bus doesn’t seem like it would break the bank, but it can be a real challenge for people who work low-wage, hourly jobs.

“Especially when you’re just trying to make rent, and you have medical bills or whatever, sometimes you do make the decision to not go somewhere,” said Paulo Solorzano, an Aurora resident who has been regularly riding Regional Transportation District buses and trains for a decade. “I remember making that decision — I’m not going to pay $6.”

The conundrum Solorzano and others in the metro area face every day is one RTD hopes to address with an 18-month fare study and fare equity analysis it will launch this summer.

“My goal is to have more affordable fares,” RTD General Manager Debra Johnson told The Denver Post in an interview this week.

RTD got some help reaching that goal this week when the state legislature sent to Gov. Jared Polis’ desk HB 21-1186, a bill that would eliminate the requirement in state law that RTD get 30% of its revenue from the fare box.

The measure, if signed into law, would give RTD greater flexibility in setting its fares.

Currently, RTD says the $3 fare for local service, $5.25 for regional service and $10.50 for service to Denver International Airport puts the agency at the upper end of the price scale among transit agencies nationwide.

“What we need to do is, in earnest, garner an understanding of our customer pain point,” Johnson said.

That will take a thoughtful and comprehensive outreach effort from RTD, said Deyanira Zavala, executive director of Mile High Connects, a nonprofit that works on increasing access to things like housing and public transit.

“At the end of the day, this study should begin and end with the rider in mind and that equity is embedded throughout the process,” she said. “This means that we’re getting insights from those that have been using the system throughout the pandemic and know the frustrations inside and out.”

RTD promises it’ll talk to advocacy groups that serve people of color, youth, seniors, veterans, people with disabilities, those experiencing homelessness, as well as LGBTQ riders.

“From the start, we need to have a clear definition of what we mean by equity and a tool that takes a closer look on how the recommendations play out,” Zavala said.

RTD has analyzed and changed its fare structure in the past, simplifying it in 2015 from a four-zone model to the current three-zone approach. But Johnson wants to simplify it further, saying it’s not easy to figure out the cost of a journey on the system’s buses and trains.

“If I can’t deduce the cost of the fare, how can our customers do that?” she said.

One approach could be the one RTD took last fall with the opening of the N-Line train to Thornton. The agency charged a single local $3 fare across the entire corridor for its first six months of operation as part of a pilot program, even though the two furthest out stations are located in RTD’s regional zone. Results from that pilot program have not yet been analyzed.

Then there’s the pandemic, which decimated RTD’s ridership and threatens to permanently upend work habits and commuting patterns. It’s not clear what that’ll do to RTD’s efforts to maintain a healthy revenue stream while trying to lower costs for riders.

Johnson said RTD has to be “agile, flexible and ready to pivot” in the face of long-lasting impacts from the pandemic, which gutted ridership by up to 70%.

“It may not necessitate a 60-foot articulated bus — we may be using smaller vehicles to transport people,” she said. “But one constant remains: that as long as we have people on this planet they’re going to need to move to and fro to get to different places.”

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