RTD Board Gives Service Cuts Initial OK As It Grapples With Driver Shortage

Kevin J. Beaty/CPR News
A 99L bus near the state Capitol in downtown Denver.

The Regional Transportation District board of directors gave its initial approval on Tuesday to a plan to cut bus and train service in an effort to give relief to overworked drivers.

RTD’s operations and customer service committee, which contains every board member, voted 12 to three. If they give the plan their final sign-off at a full board meeting later this month, RTD will reduce service on more than a dozen bus lines and two light rail lines. Some may be brought back if the agency can staff up sufficiently.

“This has been a difficult process that we’ve gone through as an agency and as a community,” board chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede said, adding that she’s grateful for the thousands of emails and public comments the agency has received in recent months. “In the end it says that the community is listening to us, and we are listening to them.”

After weeks of public meetings, RTD last week pulled back on some proposed cuts — notably the popular 16L express bus on West Colfax. But a handful of routes, like the 55 in Arvada and the 236 in Boulder are set to be eliminated. More than a dozen others, like the 116X from Ken Caryl to downtown Denver, will see reductions — either by shortening routes or reducing the frequency of service.

“I have chosen to live without a car as much as possible,” Jennifer Moreland, a 116X rider, said at an RTD public outreach meeting in Littleton in early March. “To cut service, it’s really challenging.”

The cuts were aimed mostly at routes with relatively low ridership. A high-profile example is the R Line, a light rail route that follows I-225 in Aurora. Mayor Mike Coffman complained in a Denver Post editorial in February that RTD’s plan to reduce frequencies would be unfair.

“A reduction in frequency to every 30 minutes will have a chilling effect on ridership and future development,” Coffman wrote.

Some RTD board members agreed. "It sends a bad message," said Bob Broom.

But others said the expected development along much of the R Line that would warrant more service isn’t coming along fast enough. So while ridership is growing modestly, trains still have relatively few riders. Its 1.8 million boardings last year made it the second-least popular of RTD’s eight light rail lines, ahead of only the stubby L Line loop in downtown Denver.

“We are not in the business of moving train cars,” board member Kate Williams said. “We are in the business of moving people.”

"I see no reason to have an empty train running by a construction site," board member Claudia Folska added.

RTD COO Michael Ford said the cuts will give operators a break, lead to fewer last-minute cancellations, and could help with retention issues. More than 99 percent of scheduled bus service and 96 percent of light rail service is currently being provided — but much of it by drivers forced to work a sixth day.

“It’s coming at a cost,” Ford said at a Tuesday afternoon board briefing.

Staff say the reductions amount to 3 percent of bus service and 4.6 percent of light rail service. RTD is currently short 115 bus drivers and 60 light rail operators. The cuts would reduce the need for about 30 bus drivers and nine light rail operators. Some board members worried those cuts are too small to give operators meaningful relief.

“Instead of taking three steps forward, we took one step forward,” board member Natalie Menten said. “And I’m worried that it’s not enough.”

There are currently 58 light rail operators in a training class -- an all-time high -- that are scheduled to graduate in July. RTD estimates they could reach their desired headcount of 216 as soon as this July or as late as October, depending on attrition. On the bus side, RTD estimates it will reach its headcount of 945 full-time drivers as early as September 2020 if attrition is 15 percent — or as late as September 2023 if it’s 30 percent.

Routes proposed for service reductions:

  • Route 0L South Broadway: discontinue selected peak period trips
  • Route 1 – 1st Avenue: reroute to Alameda Station and discontinue service east of Bannock Street
  • Route 32 – 32nd Avenue/City Park: reduce service east of Downtown and discontinue service west of Wadsworth Boulevard
  • Route 55 – Old Town/Arvada Ridge: discontinue service
  • Route 65 – Monaco Parkway: reduce Sunday service frequency from 30 to 60 minutes
  • Route 67 – Ridge Road: reduce service frequency weekday Route 99 – South Kipling: discontinue Saturday service
  • Route 99L (formerly Route 100L) South Kipling: discontinue segment on Kipling between Ken Caryl Park-n-Rides and Federal Center Station
  • Route 125 – Youngfield/Ward: discontinue service north of Ward Road Station
  • Route 130 – Yale/Buckley: reduce peak frequency from 15 to 30 minutes
  • Route 139 – Quincy: discontinue weekday 5:13am, 5:41am eastbound, and 4:40am westbound; and Saturday 5:56am eastbound
  • Route 206 – Pearl/Manhattan/Fairview High School: discontinue weekday mid-day service and remove route between Arapahoe/55th Fairview High School midday
  • Route 236 - Boulder Junction/US 36 & Table Mesa: discontinue service Route 403 – Lucent Boulevard: reduce service to hourly during peak period
  • Route Jump - Boulder Lafayette via Arapahoe: reduce frequency to hourly weekday midday, east of 63rd/Arapahoe-Lafayette Park-n-Rides
  • Route MALL – 16th Street mall Shuttle: reduce peak frequency from 90 to 180 second frequency weekdays
  • Route Y - Lyons/Boulder: reduce service to 1 AM and 1 PM peak trips
  • Route 116X - South Simms: discontinue one AM and one PM peak trip
  • Broncos Ride: discontinue service
  • BuffRide: discontinue service
  • Rockies Service: discontinue service
  • RunRide: discontinue service in 2021
  • C Line - Littleton Mineral-Denver Union Station: add service on weekends
  • D Line - Littleton Mineral- 18th&California: discontinue service on weekends
  • R Line - Ridgegate- Peoria & Smith Rd Station: Reduce service frequency to 30 minutes weekday and weekends.

Routes proposed for mixed service improvements/ service efficiencies:

  • Route 27 – East Yale Avenue: combine with Route 46 north of Yale Avenue and discontinue service south of Hampden. New south terminal at Southmoor Park-n-Rides
  • Route 46 – South Dahlia Street: combine with Route 27 south of Yale Avenue, replacing former routing
  • Route 66 – Arapahoe Road: cutback Route 66 from Arapahoe Crossing Shopping Center to Arapahoe at Village Center Station
  • Route 153 – Chambers Road: extend Route 153 from Arapahoe Crossing Shopping Center to Arapahoe at Village Center Station