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A light rail train waits for passengers at RTD's Peoria Street station in Aurora. Aug. 10. (Kevin J. Beaty, Denverite)

Way back in 2019, when most of us wore masks only at Halloween, Jayne Neimann considered the Bustang a vital part of her life.

The bougie commuter bus run by the state transportation department offered Wi-Fi, cushy seats and a chance to relax with her phone for an hour on her way to Denver, where her dream job working for an interior designer waited for her. Neimann lived in Loveland, and she didn’t want to move away from her family or her roller derby team. She was a part of a small revolution of Denver commuters — a quarter of northern Colorado’s workforce — who loved the options public transportation gave her

Now Neimann, 38, wonders when she’ll get back on the mass transit bandwagon. 

When the coronavirus shut down public transit, she began working from home. An elderly family member lived with her, so she shut herself inside. And even when Bustang beckoned again, at half-capacity, she drove herself to work, unwilling to risk infection. When the vaccine came, everyone in her household got it, and she was ready to ride Bustang again for her three days in the office — until Bustang went to full capacity. 

She has faith in her own vaccination, but that faith is limited.

“I was excited about getting back on the bus,” she said back in May. “But I’m not ready for that yet. I’ll get there.” 

But will others? Ridership on buses and trains has improved, but not as much as Front Range transportation services had hoped by now. 

Gov. Jared Polis seemed to acknowledge as much last week when he proposed to pay local transit systems to offer free rides on high ozone days. The move, as a part of his 2022-23 budget request, is intended to curb climate change, as ozone continues to plague the Front Range. But it was also made to change habits, he said, and “support long-term increases in ridership.” 

So many hurdles remain, including new ones such as staffing and a continued resistance to commuting as workers want to remain on the couch with a headset. But there are also the same old worries over cramming into closed spaces as the delta variant pushes infection rates higher and higher

“The biggest thing is building confidence in people,” Tina Jaquez, a spokeswoman for the Regional Transportation District, said in May. “Many are still scared to go back to the way life was before the pandemic.”

Things still ain’t what they used to be

Drew Brooks tends to treat Larimer County’s COVID-19 vaccination statistics like he was following the score of his favorite team. He’s the director of Transfort, the City of Fort Collins’ transportation service operation. 

“I refresh the dashboard pretty frequently,” Brooks said. 

Near the end of July, Larimer County had reached a 70% vaccination rate, just like the state of Colorado. But Brooks, like other transportation leaders, didn’t feel like his team was winning: As of Nov. 4, ridership was still down 50% since the pandemic hit, and that’s with a 25% bump from the return of Colorado State students. 

RTD last week carried about 70% of its pre-pandemic riders, and Greeley-Evans Transit riders, including those on its relatively new Poudre Express route linking Greeley with Fort Collins and Windsor, were still down 40%. 

The coronavirus frustrated all of us, but transportation managers such as Will Jones, Greeley’s deputy director of public works, still shake their heads at the brutal way the pandemic squelched their hard-won momentum. Greeley’s ridership had grown by nearly 70% since service launched in 2012.

“Ridership is coming back, but it’s slow,” Jones said, noting that ridership has increased by 10% since this summer.

Part of the plummet in ridership was a self-inflicted wound: Transit systems limited capacity and service because they didn’t want to spread the virus, and stopped charging to ride because times were tough for everyone. Some of those changes are gone, though federal law still requires passengers to wear masks on public transportation.

But service is still limited in many cities. 

Transfort had to limit service because it is short 25 bus drivers. Brooks is desperate enough that not only has he increased wages, but he will pay applicants to earn their commercial licenses. RTD is also aggressively hiring, searching a shallow pool of workers so its momentum doesn’t get squished again: Ridership was up by 52% since January, and average weekday boardings were up by 58%. 

Bustang’s numbers are way down, too, even with its aggressive reopening, but again that’s partly because it shut down on March 18, 2020, and when it reopened three months later, capacity was cut to only a handful of riders. Nearly 23,000 people rode Bustang in the 12 months that ended in July 2020. But from March 18 until the start of May, Bustang served just 3,500 riders. 

All Bustang routes and its related Bustang Outrider routes are back in service.

A Bustang driver assist s with passenger luggage during a stop at Union Station on July 19 in Denver. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“There really is no other service that does what we do for such wide swaths,” said Kyle French, who runs Bustang for the Colorado Department of Transportation. “We wanted to get going as fast as we could and meet all our ridership needs.”

Some cities have done better than others. Ridership is down on City of Loveland Transit buses, aka COLT, but only by 30%. Candice Folkers, Loveland’s transit manager, said those numbers reflect the fact that Loveland isn’t a college town with students who need the bus to get to a campus. Many workers returned to the office much faster than college students: Many colleges remained virtual even this spring. 

“Our normal ridership is our base ridership,” Folkers said. “But we do have a lot of seniors and the disabled who ride.”

Transit isn’t always a choice

Those seniors, many of whom have lost the ability to drive, and people with disabilities continue to rely on transportation to get them places. Transportation, in fact, remains the biggest reason seniors lose their independence and move into an assisted living facility, either when they can no longer drive themselves or find reliable rides to get them to where they need to go, Janet Bedingfield, executive director of 60+ Ride of Weld County, told the NoCO Optimist. 

“Housing is up there too, but even if you have a house, you still need to get to the doctor or the grocery store or the bank,” Bedingfield said while espousing the importance of RideNoCo, a service founded by the North Front Range Metro Organization that allows seniors to make one phone call to find a ride.

This is also true of those who can’t afford a car or the maintenance they require. Tara Linder of Greeley recently got a free bike from a charity to run her errands, she said while waiting for a city bus and doing a crossword puzzle. But that bike was stolen within weeks.

“That’s why I didn’t mind wearing a mask,” Linder said. “It was either that or I couldn’t get on the bus.”

So fare collections are obviously down, but because of those dependent on transportation, agencies can’t just slash services to save money.

“We still hear from people who do need the service,” Jaquez said of RTD, which manages all bus and passenger rail lines in the tax collecting district covering most of the Denver metro region. 

Indeed, this is why city transportation leaders such as Jones continue to push to keep services as sharp as they can. 

“When people had a choice, they simply could not ride,” he said. “But the people who have no option are still riding. What I’m hearing from drivers is they are still seeing those people, just not as frequently. They think they are combining their errands.” 

Many of route changes were an attempt to continue to serve communities and people, like Linder, who rely on transportation, by shedding rarely used routes. 

RTD has restored some routes, bringing the district to 70% of pre-pandemic service levels. Service was reduced on many suburban routes, as people who ride those buses typically use the bus for reasons other than need. Routes along Colfax Avenue, that crosses the center of the city, for example, remain strong. 

Some transit systems still are struggling because of the pandemic, including Poudre Express, which began service between Greeley, Fort Collins and Windsor in 2019. The regional route was doing well before the pandemic. 

Jones, the Greeley transit manager, said the city needs to stick with it for now (and dollars that flowed in from federal pandemic programs help him justify it). But it can take three years for a service or a route to take. 

“We do need to be good stewards of tax dollars,” Jones said. “But I think it goes back to that maturity of a route. I feel strongly that the route will be in a good place eventually. It will just take longer now.”

Even if residents aren’t filling the buses just yet, those who do use the service tend to be passionate about it. Jones recalls hearing from one customer after the pandemic shut down the Poudre Express: He had a good job in Boulder, but lived in Greeley because homes were much more affordable, and he used the line to connect to another service that took him to work.

“He had to get rides to make that job,” Jones said. “People need us.”

Getting them back

Brooks, of Transfort, admits he’s frustrated: ridership in Fort Collins had more than doubled since 2015. 

“We may see that it will be hard to return to those ridership numbers,” Brooks said. “Working from home, even as a hybrid, will be more common.”

The free days proposed by Polis could lead to a ridership boost. Transportation systems often see a 20% increase in ridership when fares are waived, Brooks said. 

“I certainly think we should try all options,” Brooks said. “Fares can be a barrier to ridership.” 

Deborah Johnson, RTD’s CEO, issued a statement last week endorsing Polis’ fare proposal. 

“The agency has already begun planning efforts to implement ‘Spare The Air’ days for the 2022 season,” Johnson said, “and will collaborate with regional partners in every facet of this endeavor.” 

Others, such as Jones of Greeley, said reducing fares could help, but the impact of it may be affected by the frequency of service: Riders who do have a choice may wait 15 minutes, but they won’t wait an hour for a bus. 

“People will choose the path of least resistance,” he said. 

And this means checking in with residents to define the routes, services and types of vehicles they prefer as part of a master planning exercise that began this summer. Jones said Greeley-Evans Transit also needs to collaborate more with nearby cities. 

“We have to continue to think regionally,” Jones said. “But the master plan will help guide us and tell us where the community wants to go.”

The North Front Range Metro Organization just began a study that hopes to find a solution to connect all the cities to each other as well as Denver. The idea is not to compete, said Alex Gordon, a transportation planner, and the service doesn’t have to be a rail line. (RTD’s current north metro rail plans end at a future station at Colorado 7 in Thornton.)

Getting back longtime riders, such as Neimann, may mean more marketing. Brooks said transportation leaders, even those from other nearby cities, talk to each other about what message to share.

“I think the primary message is about safety,” Brooks said. 

There’s been no indication that outbreaks were a result of public transportation, Brooks said, and even if he acknowledges that’s hard to measure, he also said the air turnover on buses is frequent. Other services, such as Bustang, have made improvements to enhance air circulation, a crucial component of preventing COVID-19. 

RTD, as do other transportation services, sees signs that the riders may come back despite their continuing fears about getting too close. 

There’s a surge in those concerned about the climate and a fattening commute appears to have plumped up I-25 again. Jaquez called it a “parking lot,” no matter what time of the day. 

“We are still reliable and safe, and there are places where people want to go,” Jaquez said. “But we recognize there could be a change in commuting patterns. Ridership is a concern because everyone has learned to do everything different now.”

RTD’s services may be needed as the Front Range struggles to meet its air quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Colorado Department of Health and Environment earlier this year pondered requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to reduce their number of people commuting alone by car. But that proposal eventually turned into a voluntary program. 

The Downtown Denver Partnership, now backed by 150 companies and organizations, started a Denver’s Ready campaign to encourage workers back to their downtown offices, which could help with ridership again. 

At least once a week, French, the Bustang manager, tries to head down to Union Station to gauge attitudes among riders who have begun using transit again. What he hears gives him hope that things will return to normal very soon. 

“Whenever someone sees my ID from CDOT,” he said, “they ask about Bustang. We get questions, but we also get thanks.”

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @DanEngland