RTD Has A New Discount For Low-Income Riders. Nonprofits Say It Comes At The Expense Of The ‘Most Desperate’

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Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
Shirley Whiteside, wellness office case manager at the St. Francis Center, holds up an RTD local ticket in her office on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. St. Francis is one of more than 200 nonprofits that give RTD tickets and passes to clients in need.

If you make 185 percent or less than the federal poverty limit — about $47,000 for a family of four in Denver — and are between 20 and 64 years old, you are now eligible for a 40 percent discount on most RTD fares.

As of today, you can sign up for the discount online through a form that will ask for household income and other information to verify eligibility. Once that happens, which should take anywhere from two weeks to 45 days, you’ll be sent an ID card that you can use to buy certain passes at a discount:

  • Three-hour pass, either in MyRide or RTD Mobile Tickets app form
  • Day pass in RTD Mobile Tickets app form

The form is smartphone accessible and a Denver Public Library spokeswoman said librarians are prepared to assist people with the application.

RTD has one of the highest fare structures of any transit agency in a mid-sized U.S. city. Advocacy groups like Mile High Connects have pushed the agency for years to offer discounted fares to low-income riders.

The LiVE program is an answer to that call, growing out of a year-long discussion among community members, including school districts, cities, nonprofits, and others, that RTD tasked with coming up with a way to make fares more equitable. Their recommendations had to be revenue neutral, which is why the new discount is only 40 percent — not 50 percent, as originally planned.

“We're trying to find that sweet spot that allows people to use our services without us completely losing the means by which to serve them,” said Michael Washington, RTD’s equity manager.

The agency estimates about 79,000 people will use the discount over the next three years. They are spending $1.3 million on start-up and operation this year, and expect $3.4 million in lost revenue in 2020. 

This Discount Is New. But It Comes At The Expense An Existing One

For more than 25 years, RTD has sold a limited number of tickets and passes to nonprofit organizations at a 50 percent discount. In fiscal 2018, for instance, nonprofits paid about $3.4 million for $6.8 million worth of fare products to distribute to their clients.

RTD couldn’t say how many people use those fares. But they expect far more people will be able to take advantage of the new low-income discount.

“What this program does is provide people with a sustainable benefit,” Washington said. “This is a much larger scale in that they're not depending on a nonprofit anymore to be able to get the fare media that they need at a rate that they can afford.”

Some 260 nonprofits and government agencies, from service providers for the homeless to county human service departments, currently buy fares from RTD at a 50 percent discount. They will no longer be able to buy monthly passes and their discount on other fare types will drop to 40 percent at the end of the year.

That’s upset people like Tom Luehrs, executive director of the St. Francis Center, a day shelter in downtown Denver. Luehrs said his organization spends “tens of thousands” of dollars on thousands of discounted tickets and passes, and will have to be more frugal in giving them out. Their clients use them to get to critical things like medical appointments, interviews and work.

“I think what this program is basically doing is supporting a wider community of people in need off the backs of the people who are most desperate,” Luehrs said.

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
Tom Luehrs is the executive director of the St. Francis Center, a day shelter for the homeless in downtown Denver.

One of Luehrs’ clients is Lisa Rivera, a 48-year-old Leadville native who said she’s been homeless for 25 years. She suffers from diabetes, asthma and kidney failure and has frequent appointments at Denver Health and Rose Medical Center. She takes the bus to those on a St. Francis Center-provided fare and hopes that can continue.

“I would have to walk to my appointments and they'll take me like two or three hours to get there,” she said. “I need that transportation to stay where it's at so I can be able to get around and stay healthy. Because I got two kids and I got grandbabies that I need to see grow up.”

The Denver Rescue Mission, which operates a handful of shelters and other facilities in Denver and Northern Colorado, bought 447 monthly bus passes last year at a cost of $25,479. Deb Butte, the Rescue Mission’s director of intake and diversion, said the smaller discount means they’ll likely have to buy less from RTD.

“It will just not allow us to help as many people,” she said.

Butte said Rescue Mission staff will help clients sign up for the low-income discount directly, and is hopeful more people can take advantage of it. She said the organization is used to dealing with shifting policies. 

“There's usually positives and negatives that come with each,” she said. “Regardless of the decisions that are made, we will continue to try to help our clients to the best of our ability.”

A Move To Empower Riders

Where those two organizations serve some of the city’s most indigent residents, Jewish Family Service helps people in a wider variety of situations with things like rental and food assistance. Shelly Hines, the organization’s director of the family safety net program, said her better-off clients could benefit from RTD’s changes.

“We'll spend more time trying to help them navigate the system,” she said. 

But Hines expects the changes will likely hurt her poorest clients the most; the $3,000 Jewish Family Service spends annually on RTD fares just won’t go as far, she said.

“We'll help less people for sure,” she said. “In our whole city, for people in poverty, transportation is a major barrier for them anyway. And so now I think that for a segment of our population we just made that a lot more challenging.”

RTD’s Michael Washington acknowledged nonprofits will soon have to pay more. But he said RTD is dropping the cap on how many discounted fares it can sell, and is working with nonprofits to “shore up some of the gaps.” For instance, the agency will allow nonprofits to buy fares at the 50 percent discount through the end of the year. 

In the long run, Washington said, the new discount program marks a significant shift to empower riders. 

“It's less of a gamble,” he said. “You're not hoping that there's going to be enough left for you.”