‘No Mask, No Ride’: Bus Drivers Worry RTD Isn’t Ready To Collect Fares Safely

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
Union transit workers picket outside RTD’s Central Park station, June 26, 2020.

Updated 9:10 a.m.

RTD’s bus and light rail operators say the agency isn’t ready to safely begin collecting fares.

About three dozen drivers picketed at RTD’s Central Park station Friday morning, just days before fare collection is set to start July 1. Passengers have been boarding most of RTD’s buses from the rear door since April to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

“$3 fare, the risk is still there,” they chanted. “We protect you, you protect us.”

Lance Longenbohn, president of the ATU-1001 transit workers union, said RTD should require passengers to wear masks and enforce social distancing on its vehicles.

"If anybody without a mask gets on a bus, the bus has the potential to be contaminated — and we're no longer delivering passengers, we're delivering virus," he said as drivers marched behind him.

Susan Squibb of Denver was wearing a mask as she waited for the A Line. Said she generally has felt safe on RTD in the pandemic — at least when fellow passengers also wore masks.

“I think it’s important,” she said. “I totally support that everyone should wear a mask.”

The agency has asked passengers to wear masks since April. Agency spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas said it’s a requirement “to the extent practicable given we can’t enforce on every bus or train.” 

“People need to take responsibility and use good judgment,” she said.

The agency also issued a press release Friday morning saying it would give masks to riders as supplies last.

"If we all hold ourselves accountable and follow the safety protocols we’ve become accustomed to, we can be partners in safety," CEO and General Manager Paul Ballard said in the release.

RTD says it has plenty of personal protective equipment like gloves, masks, face coverings and disinfectant spray. RTD is also making and installing large, clear polycarbonate shields on its buses, between drivers and the front door, as another layer of protection.

But cecause of a material shortage and the time needed for installation, only a few buses on RTD’s most popular lines will be equipped by July 1.

“We're trying to expedite everything we can to ensure we get these shields up as quickly as possible,” COO Michael Ford told RTD’s board Tuesday evening, estimating it will take “a couple of months or longer” to outfit RTD’s thousand-plus buses. 

A years-long shortage among RTD’s body shop staff is also contributing to that longer timeline. 

“I have to balance between producing the barriers and actually maintaining our fleet so we can keep services on the road,” said Fred Worthen, RTD’s assistant general manager for bus operations.

The ATU-1001 denied RTD’s request to use non-body shop workers to make and install the shields, Worthen said. He estimated it will take about 6,000 worker hours to complete the job.

“I began my career as a coach operator, so I have really taken it very seriously that we do everything we can to protect our employees through all of this,” he told the board.