Coloradans have many complaints about RTD — the Regional Transportation District that operates buses and light-rail across metro Denver. Some are valid, some are not. Despite all the issues, the real insanity is some of the solutions that people propose to “fix” this system. The two most popular ideas are balkanization and defunding.
Balkanization is where cities or counties secede from RTD completely or start providing duplicate services in an attempt to bolster “local” transit. The RTD system was created for a reason. The hint is in the name: Regional. We need regional transit that can transport people across the multiple counties that make up the Denver metro area. The system works best, and is funded best, when we pool our resources.
With RTD, the balkanization idea is most frequently expressed as “our city should form its own transit system” or “the university should make its own bus routes.” This was recently seen when the Colorado Department of Transportation extorted the RTD system with the demand that it revive the popular Flatiron Flyer express bus shuttle between Denver and Boulder, or else CDOT would divert tens of millions of dollars in transit-specific federal coronavirus relief funding to Boulder County instead.
CDOT’s demand ignored the fact that the Flatiron Flyer had been running every 15 minutes. RTD had suspended the minimal-stop express runs because the pandemic had gutted passenger volume, but stop-by-stop service continued.
This demand favoring Boulder also overlooked the fact that the Flatiron Flyer does not serve low-income or minority communities.
There are communities in Denver where low-income and minority communities also have faced reduced services during the pandemic. RTD is required by federal law to increase services to those communities before, or at the same time, it restores services to white and affluent areas such as Boulder. RTD does not have the funding to do both.
The recent decision to give the money to Boulder County instead of RTD, under a nebulous Boulder County-RTD-Federal Transit Administration Agreement, further balkanizes the system and helps no one.
Transit districts aside, we have seen how other attempts at balkanization have panned out in Colorado. The City of Boulder wasted a decade litigating with Xcel Energy in an attempt to create a brand-new electricity service provider.
Another example is the ongoing spat between Douglas, Arapahoe, and Adams counties about the Tri-County Health Department’s COVID-19 mask mandates and other protocols. The only result here is lots of wasted time, tons of money on litigation, and what will likely be three different county public health departments that will provide fewer services in a less coordinated way.
We saw the second idea — defunding — tried when Gov. Jared Polis earmarked for RTD not one cent of the $4 billion transportation package that was making its way through the General Assembly. Polis has nursed a long grudge against RTD over stalled plans to extend the light-rail B line to Boulder, which he represented during his time in Congress.
This fit of budgetary pique could not be any more counterproductive. This is like refusing to buy gas for your car because you are mad about the price you paid last time, then running out of gas on I-25.
When Polis and other politicians decide not to fund RTD, it is basically a decision to not fund public transit at all. The decision to deny RTD new funding streams, or its fair share of state funding to begin with, only compounds the challenges the agency faces. These decisions will make it harder for the agency to deliver the things that Polis wants, like finishing the long-awaited B line.
RTD is the best way for Colorado to fight climate change. RTD’s electric trains and buses drastically reduce emissions that would otherwise be made by car trips. If RTD services are not expanded to reduce cars on the road, Colorado will never achieve our emissions reduction goals.
Vehicle emissions are the single largest source of emissions in the State of Colorado. Waiting on electric cars alone to solve pollution, and the necessary billions in federal funding, will take years or decades. Experts agree: Electrifying vehicles will not be enough; we need far more people using public transit to meet emissions reduction goals
Because state leaders are engaged in a zero-sum approach of, “me first, others later” to funding RTD services, The Graduate and Professional Student Government at CU-Boulder is going to elevate the conversation to the federal level.
The graduate-student government will work with the Colorado congressional delegation to secure $15 billion in for the RTD system over the next decade, by way of earmarks to any piece of federal legislation we can. This number is large, but it is needed. Colorado will not meet its climate goals or develop an equitable economy for all without a robust public transit system serving the front range.
Let’s start funding RTD like our state, our climate, and our future rely on it.
Matthew Vondrasek, of Denver, is the president of outreach for the Graduate and Professional Student Government at CU-Boulder.
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