RTD Plans Big Staffing Cuts As Coronavirus Decimates Budget

A cold RTD bus on Colfax Avenue. Nov. 25, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
A cold RTD bus on Colfax Avenue. Nov. 25, 2019.

The Regional Transportation District plans to eliminate more than 800 positions as it tries to close a massive budget gap.

RTD is proposing the cuts as part of its budgeting process, which needs approval from its board of directors. If the cuts happen, the reductions would amount to an astonishing reversal for the agency as it continues to deal with fallout from the coronavirus.

RTD had struggled for years to fully staff those positions before the pandemic hit, and now it can’t afford them.

The agency did not plan to share the layoff plan with employees until next week. But Lance Longenbohn, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union-1001, decided to go public with it now. He wants the agency’s incoming CEO Debra Johnson to have a say and to let financial projections solidify. He said the cuts, if they happen, will limit the agency’s ability to recover.

"Once we let these people go, we won't get them back. And we will cripple ourselves from being able to respond to any kind of service needs,” Longenbohn said in an interview.

RTD confirmed the plans in a press release late Tuesday.

Some 700 of those positions include bus drivers, light rail operators and mechanics, Longenbohn said. About 200 are open now, he said, meaning about 500 workers would be cut. On the non-unionized administrative side, 175 positions, or about 120 current workers, would be eliminated. 

The disparity between the two groups is unfair, Longenbohn said. He cited union research that shows RTD’s administrative staff has grown by 154 percent since 1985, while represented employees have only grown by 38 percent. In 2019, RTD had about 2,000 unionized workers and 850 non-unionized employees.

“RTD continues to value its over-paid managers over front-line workers,” the union wrote in a press release. 

The pain will not be limited to unionized workers, however. Pay freezes, temporary reduction in pension contributions, furloughs (lowest-earning employees would be exempt), and other cost-cutting measures are proposed for non-represented salaried employees, according to an internal memo sent to all employees Tuesday afternoon.

The memo, which an RTD employee who asked to remain anonymous provided to CPR News, said the proposed layoffs amount to 25 to 30 percent of budgeted positions in the agency.

"We know that this is a difficult time for employees and the whole organization," interim CEO and General Manager Paul Ballard wrote in the memo. "These are unprecedented times that have created much disruption and anxiety in our lives."

It’s unclear when RTD will be able to meaningfully restore service from the 40 percent cut it made in April. Ridership across the system is still off by about 60 percent, though it’s holding steady on routes that serve transit-dependent passengers, like the 0 on Broadway and the 15 on Colfax Avenue. 

So, in January, the agency plans to implement significant changes to service that will likely lead to more frequent service on those corridors — at the expense of little-used commuter buses to places like Evergreen, Conifer and Brighton.

"For every trip that we continue to provide carrying three or four passengers, we are going to be leaving passengers standing on Colfax,” RTD’s special projects director Bruce Abel told the agency’s board of directors in early August. “Because we are going to have extremely limited financial resources."

The federal government reimbursed $232 million of RTD’s costs this year, staving off more immediate layoffs. But there’s no further relief in sight; RTD’s most recent estimate put its financial hole for 2021 at $166 million. That’s shifted over the last few months and likely will again, CFO Heather McKillop said last week, which could change the number of jobs on the line.

Staff will present the proposed reductions to the board in a study session next week.