This New Bill Wants To Make RTD Healthier And More Accountable. Will It Work?

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
An RTD bus is parked at Civic Center Station in Denver, just across Colfax Avenue from the Colorado state Capitol.

A bipartisan group of legislators introduced a bill Tuesday that would add four new board members and tighten oversight of the Regional Transportation District. RTD board members have concerns about the bill, which they say duplicates the agency's existing efforts.

The bill is meant to address a variety of issues at the district, said state Rep. Dominique Jackson, D-Aurora, including increasingly spotty service, high fares, and access for disabled riders. 

“My constituents are speaking loudly and clearly,” Jackson said. “They're concerned with the fact that there are things going on with RTD that they don't understand. They're struggling to get to work, to get to school, to get to their doctor's appointments.”

RTD has seen overall ridership drop for the last five years, even as it has opened four new rail lines and one corridor extension in that time. Service itself has been less reliable in recent months, especially on RTD's light rail network, because of a crippling driver shortage. 

Nearly 97 percent of light rail trips were completed in November, but that figure doesn’t reflect spikes in cancellations that can leave thousands of passengers stranded on bad days. Last Friday alone, about 10 percent of all light rail trips were canceled. 

“We're not here to be the heavy on RTD, but there's a problem,” Jackson said. “We want to make sure that transit-dependent communities feel as though they are heard.”

The bill focuses particularly on changes intended to help riders with disabilities and ensure the agency equitably provides service.

It would add four new members to the existing 15-member elected board, including two non-voting members. The two voting members would be at-large and appointed by the governor. One of those would represent constituents with disabilities and the other would be required to have experience or interest in equitable transportation planning. 

The bill would also integrate parts of the federal Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disability Act into state law, which would allow civil lawsuits against RTD for discriminatory practices to be filed in state court. Victorious plaintiffs would also be eligible for more monetary damages than are possible under current law.

RTD staff are concerned that could put the agency at risk of being sued far more often.

“If RTD is subject to ongoing claims and litigation costs, this could impact RTD’s ability to provide transit service,” staff wrote in an analysis of a draft version of the bill CPR obtained via an open records request. “RTD wants to find a solution that encourages RTD’s continued compliance with ADA and civil rights laws but that does not unduly burden its ability to provide transit service to transit-dependent riders.”

But advocates for disabled riders say the ability to file suit in state court would give them an important new tool to resolve problems more quickly and cheaply than federal court.

Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, said her organization supports the legislation, and she hopes it will be used to hold the agency more accountable to the public. 

“They're acting as if we're trying to hurt them. No, we're trying to save them,” she said. “If they become insolvent, it's a big crisis for us.”

She said frustration with RTD hit a new level recently because of possible changes to Access-a-Ride. 

In November, RTD’s top executive told the board, “We don’t need to touch Access-a-Ride,” as part of a larger service reduction proposal. Then, a month later, the agency altered course, saying no new customers would be added to the program if fixed-route service is cut in their area. 

“It's that kind of word game and manipulation that has us so mad,” Reiskin said. 

Still, board chair Angie Malpiede-Rivera and other board members say parts of the bill are unnecessary, particularly those involving protections for disabled riders and the agency’s civil rights division.

“ADA compliance is just our culture, period,” she said. “I mean, it's just what we do and we do it well.”

At an RTD board executive committee meeting Thursday, board member Lynn Guissinger said while she isn’t a trained advocate for the disability community, she’s learned on the fly.

“I think we all, by nature of being elected, get involved in these issues,” Guissinger said.

“Just like legislators do,” replied board member Vince Buzek, who added: “When I first saw that, I was confused. It seemed like a solution looking for a problem.”

While the agency has a number of advisory committees, including one for users of its paratransit service Access-a-Ride, Reiskin said those panels don’t have any direct power or a formal link to the board of directors.

“These committees are a joke,” she said. “When they say they're doing all of this stuff, they don't listen to the disability community.”

RTD spokeswoman Tina Jacquez said while the committees are advisory by nature, the board does get regular updates on their activities. And staff take their concerns seriously, she said, pointing to sliding doors at the Union Station bus concourse as an example of that.

The bill also takes aim at RTD’s high fares and transparency.

State law currently requires that 30 percent of RTD’s operating costs are funded by passenger fares. The elimination of that requirement would give the agency the ability to lower RTD’s relatively high fares, Rivera-Malpiede said. 

“We don't have flexibility at this point,” Rivera-Malpiede said. The board supports that part of the bill.

Flexibility can be good, said Ben Fried, spokesman for the TransitCenter, a New York-based advocacy and research group. But it also can be a double-edged sword.

"The other side is that this eliminates one of the incentives to run service where it's needed the most,” Fried said. “And the parts of the region that have the most demand and the greatest need for transit don't have the type of frequent service they need."

Friend said that’s because RTD’s governance structure gives too much power to board directors that represent suburban and rural areas and not enough to urban areas where transit thrives. RTD’s sprawling 2,342 square-mile district makes it the least dense among 15 transit agencies ranked by the Mid-America Regional Council in a 2018 report.

“I really think that encapsulates the core problem with Denver transit,” Fried said. 

Fried said the legislation appeared to be “mostly tinkering.” He suggested a governance structure where power and representation was proportional to population. That, he said, would be more meaningful than adding at-large board members. 

“But that's extremely difficult,” he said. “You're asking areas of the region that have power to cede that power.”

The bill also requires RTD to stream its board meetings over the Internet, adds whistleblower protections for staff and contractors, and requires the state auditor to file reports on the agency's finances and operations.

"It's about accountability," Jackson said, adding that she wants to better understand RTD's finances and how they affect the agency's ability to run its trains and buses on time.

RTD’s board of directors have met with the bill's sponsors a number of times in recent weeks as they’ve made tweaks to the legislation.

Board chair Rivera-Malpiede said she appreciate the lawmakers seeking the agency and board's input. But, she said in a statement, “we’re disappointed that none of our comments or recommendations were included in the bill.”

State Sens. Jack Tate, R-Centennial, and Robert Rodriguez, D-Denver, and state Rep. Colin Larson, R-Littleton are also sponsoring the legislation. It was referred to the Senate Energy and Transportation Committee but does not yet have a hearing scheduled.