Lawmakers Propose A State-Managed ‘Turnaround’ Plan For RTD

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
An RTD bus idles outside the state Capitol in January 2020.

Two key Democratic state lawmakers are pushing a proposal that could lead to significant changes and more oversight for the Regional Transportation District.

State Sen. Faith Winter of Westminster and state Rep. Matt Gray of Broomfield, who chair each chamber's respective transportation committees, are working on a major amendment to another RTD bill introduced in late January by a bipartisan group of legislators.

Winter said she’s heard from constituents who are frustrated with RTD’s current proposal to cut service because of an ongoing driver shortage, as well as the long-delayed train to Boulder and Longmont. RTD’s ability to provide transit service is essential to other state priorities, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and traffic congestion, she said.

“I believe in RTD,” Winter said in an interview. “And I want to give them the resources to make good decisions.”

The original bill focused on improving services for riders with disabilities, though it also included a host of other provisions. Winter and Gray’s draft amendment seeks to perform an “in-depth diagnostic review of RTD’s core functions” through a “blue ribbon panel” of national transportation experts and outside government officials. It would be modeled after a similar effort in Massachusetts in 2015. 

That group would convene as quickly as possible and would develop a list of recommendations. RTD would not be allowed to hire a new permanent general manager until after the panel finishes its work in the summer of 2020.

“This is a really important hire for RTD,” Winter told a stakeholder group that included much of the 15-member elected RTD board on Tuesday afternoon at the Capitol. “And if we’re going to put the time, and money and energy into a blue ribbon panel and actually gather all of this data, that data should inform the type of person that RTD’s hires.”

Those recommendations would then inform a second committee, this one based on Colorado’s school accountability law, which allows the state intervention for under-performing districts. 

"In Colorado, we have turnaround school districts," Winter said, adding that, "a lot of these suggestions came from that idea."

This new accountability committee would be housed within the Colorado Department of Transportation and be made up of local experts on disability issues, human resources, transit, equity, finances, urban planning and the environment, as well as a local government representative. They would make recommendations every six months for two years.

It’s not yet clear who would appoint members to those committees. But Winter suggested appointments could be split among legislators of both parties and the governor’s office.

The amendment would add some outside oversight of what is largely an autonomous organization. Most of the agency’s revenue comes from a 1 percent sales tax and fare revenue. The state occasionally audits RTD, but day-to-day oversight is done by the elected RTD board. The RTD board could choose to ignore the new committees’ recommendations, but it would have to provide its reasoning in writing. 

RTD board member Natalie Menten asked Winter if she would consider extending oversight measures to other organizations like the Denver Regional Council of Governments. 

"I'll be really honest, we don't get the complaints about DRCOG … that we do about RTD," Winter replied.

DRCOG, as a planning organization that doesn’t provide highly visible services like buses and trains, has a much lower profile than RTD.

Menten thanked Winter and Sen. Jack Tate, a Centennial Republican who co-sponsored the original legislation, for their work. 

“It’s motivating change (at RTD)," she said.

RTD’s newly minted interim general manager Paul Ballard, who started on the job Monday, also thanked the legislators.

"Obviously we're not going to resolve all of these issues today,” he said. “But I think there's been an exchange of ideas, and I feel confident that we'll work together, that you'll draft some legislation that will respect the concerns that we have — because I think you're listening to us — and the concerns of all of your constituents." 

The amendment is still in draft form and will be finalized before a committee meeting next week. Winter and Gray’s amendment would need approval from the committee to be worked into the original legislation. A number of other amendments will also be considered at that time.