RTD board elects a Boulder train champion to be its new leader as it reimagines a post-pandemic future
The Regional Transportation District’s board of directors elected Vince Buzek as its new leader Tuesday evening.
Buzek has used public transit from an early age. He moved to Colorado about 25 years ago but grew up in Chicago in a transit-dependent family and rode buses and trains to high school, he said.
“I lived in Broomfield and remember thinking, ‘Oh, let's take the bus down to Denver.' And I then found out you can't get there from here,” Buzek said in an interview.
Buzek’s first work on transportation issues started when he served as a city councilor in Broomfield around the time voters approved RTD’s 2004 FasTracks plan to build more than 100 miles of passenger rail.
After voters elected him to the RTD board in 2018, he became a vocal advocate for completing that now-underfunded and unfinished program. Although he now foresees a possible future scenario where the largest unfinished project — a train line to Boulder and Longmont — is never built.
“If [a new study says] it's going to cost you a billion and a half dollars, and you're going to get a thousand riders a day — I think that would be irresponsible to say, 'Well, let's build this thing anyway.' It really would be,” Buzek said. “But I'm hopeful that things are going to show up differently.”
Buzek now lives in unincorporated Adams County and is a practicing lawyer. His wife, Karen Stuart, sits on the Transportation Commission of Colorado, which oversees the state Department of Transportation. As chair of the RTD board, Buzek will lead the body that sets RTD’s policies and oversees the agency as it tries to rebuild service and ridership decimated by the pandemic.
Other board members elected to leadership positions are Lynn Guissinger of Boulder; Peggy Catlin of unincorporated Jefferson County; Troy Whitmore of unincorporated Adams County; and Marjorie Sloan of Golden.
Q: Why did you want to be chair this year?
Buzek: I saw what [outgoing board chair] Angie Rivera-Malpiede did. She did a lot of great things during a very difficult time. I wanted to continue some of the things that she did, but I had some ideas of my own that I want to try to advance and keep in front of the directors and get us more involved in some of those decisions. I thought that I would be the best person to make that happen.
Q: Give me a few examples of that.
Buzek: I think it's important that we work collectively and cooperatively as a board. One of the first things I'm going to be doing is reaching out individually to each board member and asking them for their number one goal for 2022. Not their top 10, not their top 3 — No. 1. Because capacity is limited.
And then [I will] see what we can do and what I can do to help the directors achieve those goals. It's important that we're all working for the same goal, I think. We have different ideas on how to get there. I think it's important that we all understand that and recognize that we may disagree on some things, but ultimately the big picture — we agree on that stuff.
We've got a ton of stuff coming up. We've got the collective bargaining agreement. We've got the impending TABOR impacts. We've got restoration of service and the system optimization plan, we've got the Denver Union Station issues and safety and security. What does that mean? What does that look like? And what's RTDs role in all of that? So there's a lot to get into.
Q: What's your top priority?
Buzek: My top priority is to help those directors achieve their top priorities. I think if we can have that happen and get things done, that'd be great. I think all the things that I rattled off — I couldn't prioritize one over the other. Really, they're all critically important.
Q: You've said many times that RTD needs to finish FasTracks. Make your best case as to why that should be a priority right now.
Buzek: When I say finishing FasTracks, I mean all of FasTracks — not just the Northwest Rail. I've been accused of being solely an advocate for finishing that. While I do have a special interest in that, seeing as how it cuts through my district, we have other unfinished FasTracks corridors.
A couple reasons: Obviously, voters agreed to be taxed based on a plan that was presented to them that included all these rail lines. Again, going back to when I was on [Broomfield] City Council, all the promises that were made about how wonderful this is going to be. And seeing immediately after its passage how developers were thinking, 'oh, this is fantastic.' We had transit-oriented development opportunities and economic development opportunities. And that's great.
The communities in RTD agreed to tax themselves. I've said this before, your taxing capacity in your community is pretty limited before people say, 'no.' When you say, 'We need to tax ourselves to improve our water sanitation.' [Voters may say,] 'Sorry, we're taxed too much.' So those people throughout the RTD district said, 'OK, we're willing to be taxed and to eat up our taxing capacity. Build this system.' I think that's an important promise.
Something that kind of gets overlooked is that it's not simply, 'Oh, you want a train and big deal.' No, they took steps to ensure that that would happen. They took steps that really limits their ability to do other things that they may want to do in their communities. I think it's important that we work on fulfilling that promise however we can.
Q: So it's really about trust? Preserving it, or rebuilding it in areas where it's been damaged?
Buzek: That's always been an issue with RTD. But I have to say that since Debra Johnson came on as general manager, I can see at least from the stakeholders that I deal with, a much better attitude toward RTD. Because she tells it how it is. She'll tell you right up front, 'I'm going to manage your expectations. Here's what I'm going to do, and here's what I'm not going to do.' And people really appreciate that. It's a refreshing change from some of the things that have happened in the past.
Buzek: Rebuilding trust is a huge thing. I've said that from the day I got on the board, that how we do that and how we communicate that to our constituents is incredibly important.
Q: RTD is currently undertaking a two-year study of a scaled-back version of the Boulder and Longmont train. What if that comes back showing high costs for little ridership? And what if Amtrak doesn't come through? Could not building this train be an outcome?
Buzek: That could be an outcome, yeah. And it depends on the circumstances and the facts that come out of the study. If they say it's going to cost you a billion and a half dollars, and you're going to get a thousand riders a day — I think that would be irresponsible to say, 'Well, let's build this thing anyway.' It really would be.
I'm hopeful that things are going to show up differently. We'll see. The studies that were done, were done years and years ago. We've had incredible growth along that corridor and incredible growth in Longmont. You know, people talk about providing transit to transit-dependent people and marginalized communities and all that. I agree completely with that. But it's not simply putting the transit where they live; it's putting the transit where they need to go to get there, to get to work and so forth.
Q: A recent policy change at the Colorado Department of Transportation could lead to more transit-oriented development around the metro. How do you see RTD fitting into that?
Buzek: I've said it for years: We are the greenhouse gas solution. Transit is always the greenhouse gas solution. Even if you're running a diesel bus and not an electric bus, if you're packing 65 people into a bus and taking 65 single-occupancy cars off the road, you're not only reducing greenhouse gas, but you're reducing congestion, too. Because idling in traffic is probably the biggest producer of greenhouse gas there is.
If you can get those cars off the road — fantastic. I think we need to sell ourselves as the environmentally proper choice for people. I think there are people that will buy into that and say, 'OK, we'll give it a try.'
Q: Do you have any ideas for how to address RTD's ongoing worker shortage?
Buzek: Yeah, I've got the magic pill right here. I wish I did. It's problematic. It's not just our industry, right? They've even got that term for it: the great resignation. Everybody is seeing it from restaurants to transit to everything in between.
I think what you need to do is make the job attractive. We've got the collective bargaining agreement coming up, and we need to make sure that we have operators that are not only fairly compensated but are valued for what they do. We hear that from our operators and our union — is that sometimes our frontline employees just don't feel valued. I know [General Manager and CEO Debra Johnson] is taking great steps to make that happen.
Q: What do you want RTD riders — and those you might want to ride but don't because it’s too costly or inconvenient — to know about you?
Buzek: Obviously, I am who I am. I speak my mind. I try to cut through nonsense and get to the point. I think that's helpful in moving things more quickly as a board.
But for [non-riders] to consider RTD as a choice we as RTD need to make some improvements. You mentioned convenience and cost and things like that. Those are things we have to address. We're doing this fare and equity study that, hopefully, we'll come out with a fare strategy that is simple and cost-effective.
Because if you make it affordable and you make it simple, you're going to get more people that are willing to give it a try. And once they give it a try, I can't tell you how many people that I talk to at East Lake station on the N Line when they come off and say, 'Oh, this is great. Oh, I love this. We go to the Rockies game, we don't have to park.' Everybody that rides it, loves it.
People on the 120X love the ride and they love the convenience. So if you have transit available, it's a good thing. It's getting it available to a broader spectrum of people, I think is going to be important. If you don't have service throughout the region, which used to be part of our mission statement, you don't have a complete transit system. It's like having a ring road around the city that's incomplete.
Q: The board leadership this year is very slanted to the northern suburbs. What would you say to passengers in the city of Denver, where more people ride?
Buzek: I can say you've got my commitment. I think everybody else on this executive committee, you've got their commitment as well, that we are not solely the north end team that's going to take care of the north end and ignore everybody else. We all recognize we are an entire system and we need to address the entire system.
The most important, as Director [Shontel] Lewis [of Denver] mentioned last night, are those people that are transit-dependent. Transit is their only way to a job, to the grocery store, to the doctor. Those are critically important things. Those are the people that we need to serve first and foremost.
Like I said before, you can't ignore everybody else. Now we've got a 2,400 square-mile district. Ouch. OK. But there has to be some kind of service out into the boonies. Not nearly what is needed in the core of our district, for sure. But we need to have a complete system. Otherwise, you're not going to get these people where I live saying, 'Hey, we're going to the Rockies game. Let's take transit.'
Q: Is RTD's district too large?
Buzek: I think it's too large to effectively service outlying areas with the resources that we have. It's not too large if you have the resources. But we don't have that. We're constricted by our budget and the monies that we bring in. Because of that, the district is larger than we can effectively service. There are going to be places that just simply don't get transit. You're going to have to drive that first and last five miles to get to your park and ride.
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!