The Regional Transportation District should lower all fares, nearly eliminate its regional zone map and drastically reduce the cost of monthly passes, according to the latest recommendation from an intensive systemwide study.
If the metro Denver transit agency’s board adopts the changes later this year, the 3-hour local fare would drop from $3 to $2.75, with a day pass costing $5.50 instead of $6 — and both would apply to all trips within RTD’s service area, except those serving Denver International Airport. The current “regional” fare would be eliminated, while a trip to or from DIA, including on the A-Line, would cost $10, down from $10.50 now.
A consolidated monthly fare pass would cost $88, which is lower than the sticker price for RTD’s current local, regional and airport passes. It would be good for any bus or train trips. That includes trips to the airport, which currently are covered by a $200 monthly pass — long a sore point for thousands of airport workers who rely on RTD.
The agency also would expand eligibility for its low-income discount program. Other ideas under consideration include free fares for all youth ages 19 and younger, initially in a one-year pilot program.
The new draft recommendations, unveiled late last week, amount to the most concrete proposal yet to emerge from the fare study, initiated by RTD leaders in 2021. The study’s mandate was to simplify RTD’s fare structure and reduce riders’ costs, which are at the upper end among U.S. transit agencies, especially for longer trips.
The potential changes come as RTD faces depressed ridership coming out of the pandemic, along with a slew of financial challenges.
Still, if its leaders go for a plan that would lower costs for riders and address equity issues, they are poised to take at least a $20 million hit on fare revenue — one the agency says it can afford.
“There’s a lot to be excited about” in the recommendations, said Molly McKinley, the policy director of the Denver Streets Partnership, a transit advocacy group that was a study partner. “The changes to the base fares and the discount programs will make a meaningful difference in the lives of the people who use transit regularly.”
In recent months, RTD’s study leaders asked thousands of people and community groups to weigh in on two different approaches to changing RTD’s fare structure.
The emerging proposal is a modification of one of those alternatives. Now it will be aired out for RTD’s elected board members, with one briefing set Tuesday night at its Finance and Planning Committee and another set for the full board at its Feb. 28 meeting. Both offer chances for public comment.
More changes are possible, and RTD in the coming months will perform a federally required equity analysis to comply with civil rights laws. The current timeline calls for another round of public input on a formal draft fares proposal this spring, with RTD’s board voting on a final version in July.
Any fare changes would take effect in early 2024.
“There’s hopefully at least a little something for everybody in this proposal, and my hope is that people will see that and will recognize that as an attempt to address a very big issue,” said RTD Director Doug Tisdale, who chairs the finance committee. “And not to do it in a way that unduly benefits one side more than another.”
Here is a closer look at several aspects of the new recommendations.
Fare reductions grow for monthly passes
Some transit advocates, including the Denver Streets Partnership, had urged RTD to lower its base local fare even lower than the recommended $2.75, and to make it a round number since infrequent riders paying with cash may lack exact change.
But McKinley said the 25-cent reduction comes with a lot of other changes that would save riders money, especially regulars. She sees value in “flattening” the current three-tier setup — local, regional and airport fares — into all-local, plus airport.
“There are so many barriers to using public transit, whether it’s figuring out where stations are or how much you should be paying,” McKinley said. “The more we can do to eliminate those barriers … the more we will help encourage people to ride.”
Big discounts for eligible groups
RTD discounts fares by 50% for riders ages 65 and older, those who are disabled and Medicare recipients. About 7,000 riders who have met low-income qualifications receive a 40% discount through a program, dubbed “LiVE,” that RTD created in 2019.
The recommended changes include boosting the low-income discount to 50%. And eligibility would increase from 185% of the federal poverty level — amounting to $55,000 a year for a family of four — to 250%, or $75,000.
As overall fares decrease, so would the discounts, to $1.35 for a 3-hour pass and $2.70 for a day pass. Those fares also would cover rides to the airport. The discount monthly pass for eligible categories would be even more steeply cut, costing just $27 — less than half of what the cheapest discounted monthly pass costs now.
Alejandra Castañeda, a mother and transit equity advocate, praised that and several other changes, while suggesting further discounts for the elderly, disabled people and other groups who often depend heavily on public transit. One potential new program drew her support.
“I love the idea of free for youth, because a lot of people who have to travel (on RTD), especially caregivers, have to travel with their children” in tow, she said. “For them to be for free, that’s awesome.”
But what about the airport fare?
RTD’s A-Line fare to and from DIA, at $10.50, stands out for its cost among many — but not all — transit lines serving U.S. airports, including for Castañeda. For the roughly 30,000 people who work at the airport, including many in service-industry jobs at concessionaires, the cost adds up quickly.
“All I know is we’ve got a lot of low-income people who work here, and they need some relief,” airport CEO Phil Washington, a former RTD leader, said during a media briefing in November.
He added his voice to those pushing for lower airport fares, especially for workers and frequent airport travelers. RTD listened, with the study recommending a change from the $200 monthly pass price to inclusion in the proposed systemwide pass, costing $88 a month — or $27 for riders eligible for discount programs.
Still, the regular airport fare would remain in the double digits, at $10, down just 50 cents, under the recommendation. (That fare would continue to double as a day pass for anyone who makes a return trip the same day.)
Impact for EcoPass programs
RTD also would tinker with its popular EcoPass program for employers, which also has versions for colleges and neighborhoods. The main EcoPass has nearly 600 participating employers this year, the agency says, with 125,600 eligible employees.
The study’s recommendations include simplified pricing for the passes, with reduced contract minimums and a consolidation of employer size categories, reducing the number of pricing levels from 16 to just three. Contracts would be based on utilization, with two years of fixed pricing that no longer factors in airport fares.
What’s the financial impact?
Fare revenue, estimated at $98 million in 2024 under current fares, covers about 8% of operating expenses, down from nearly 16% prior to the pandemic. The fare reductions recommended in the study are possible in part because state legislators in 2021 repealed a requirement setting a minimum farebox recovery level for RTD.
RTD’s five-year financial plan, updated last fall, already included a reduction in fare revenue that was likely to result from the study.
The agency’s board briefing document projects that under the recommended fare and pass changes, revenue would drop next year to $73.5 million from $78.5 million, depending on whether the board approves a zero-fare youth pass pilot.
On the flip side, ridership is expected to increase modestly by anywhere from 8% to 14% if the recommendations are implemented, with the higher number associated with the zero-fare youth pilot.
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