RTD Leaders Call Polis’ Critical Letter A ‘Head Scratcher’ As It Prepares For Cuts

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Westminster Station opened in 2016 and now serves the B Line commuter rail train, but so far it’s as close as the train has come to Boulder. Gov. Jared Polis says RTD must follow through on its promise to build a rail line from Denver to Boulder and Longmont in spite of its budget issues. “The train has to come. It was part of the 2004 ballot initiative,” Polis says.

Gov. Jared Polis told the Regional Transportation District in a letter Tuesday that it should hold off on hundreds of layoffs until there’s clarity on whether Congress will pass another pandemic relief bill.

“We believe that this decision requires significantly more public transparency prior to being finalized and that it raises some big questions about the district’s prioritization of resources during this challenging time,” Polis wrote.

But the clock is ticking. Talks for a new stimulus bill are stalled in Congress. And RTD spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas said layoffs will take effect in early January. 

Just under 75 percent of the 399 reductions will hit represented employees — drivers, mechanics and other positions RTD had struggled to fill for years before the coronavirus pandemic caused it to slash service by 40 percent. At that level, fewer workers are needed.

RTD’s new CEO and General Manager Debra Johnson said at a board meeting Tuesday that staff could adjust its budget next year if stimulus money arrives. 

“There always is the option for the rescission of layoff notices,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile, the union that represents most of RTD’s organized workers, the ATU-1001, said its national leader met with Polis in late October and has lobbied other elected officials. 

“Layoffs are not just the end of jobs, but potentially the end of RTD,” a recent post on the union’s website reads. 

Polis’ letter sought explanation for a host of other matters as well, which many RTD board members said the agency has already addressed. To wit:

  • Polis wants to know what the agency has done to cut overhead. RTD says it has cut business travel, employee bonuses and pay increases, professional development, retirement and other benefits. Such reductions were locked in when the board formally adopted its 2021 budget Tuesday night, which is $140 million less than initially planned.
  • Polis asked whether executive salaries are being reduced. Although the board shot down a proposal to cut top salaries by up to 18 percent, the 2021 budget incorporates smaller cuts — up to 7.5 percent for those earning more than $180,000.
  • Polis also asked how RTD is prioritizing service, including whether service to the “most vulnerable and transit dependent” were being taken into account. RTD’s January 2021 service plan will indeed cut service aimed at white collar commuters in favor of more inner-city service along Federal and Colfax. 
  • Polis also said, of the CARES Act, that it’s “essential that the public see exactly where that money is going.” RTD has posted a detailed spreadsheet to its website showing it has drawn about $208 million of the $232 million grant. 

“It seems like there’s a lot he doesn’t know,” Judy Lubow, who represents Longmont, said of Polis. “Because we’ve been hashing this issue out for a long time.” 

“It was a bit of a head scratcher,” Troy Whitmore said of the letter. 

“He seems to be very unaware of where we are at,” added Natalie Menten.

Polis’ letter to RTD comes as an accountability committee, convened by the governor and legislative leaders, ramps up its work. That group will ultimately file a report with recommended changes to RTD that could touch on the state law that governs the agency, and policy changes within the organization. 

That committee’s existence has ruffled the feathers of at least one board member.

“I find it interesting that the governor of Colorado feels that he needs to tell RTD … how they should run their agency and spend their funding,” said board member Kate Williams. “I wonder if he does that for transportation agencies around the state.” 

“I’m wondering what Jared Polis’ interest is in that, specific to RTD,” she added. “Maybe the accountability committee ought to ask that question.”

But others said the accountability committee represents an opportunity for RTD to strengthen its relationships with other government agencies and their leaders. 

“We want to work together for the good of everyone,” said RTD board chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede.