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If you build it, will they really come? 

Or, more specifically, if you make transit free for one month will Coloradans start riding it and then come back when they have to pay?

Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Jared Polis hope the answer is “yes” as they prepare to spend $28 million on a program aimed at easing air pollution in Colorado, particularly during summer months when ozone levels are high

Senate Bill 180 would allocate the money to let public transportation agencies, primarily the Regional Transportation District in the Denver area, offer free train and bus trips. RTD plans to use the money to offer free rides in August 2022 and 2023. 

The idea, first unveiled by the governor late last year, is to get Coloradans to try out transit in the hopes that they will form a habit. 

“We want to increase ridership because we want to increase the use of public transit because that helps our air quality,” said state Rep. Matt Gray, a Broomfield Democrat and prime sponsor of the measure.

But not everyone believes that the adage “if you build it they will come” applies in this case. RTD’s ridership is still recovering from the pandemic and the funding comes without data showing it’s a sure bet.

“Maybe if we would have come up with a bill that said each individual gets a free lunch or a Rockies ticket or a Broncos ticket maybe people would start to ride it more,” said Sen. Ray Scott, a Grand Junction Republican and frequent critic of transit initatives. “But I think it’s such a false premise to believe just because we keep throwing more money at these issues that it’s going to solve the problem.”

An RTD bus is seen on Tuesday, July 21, 2021, in downtown Denver. Denver’s Regional Transportation District operates rail and bus services over 2,342 square miles, serving over 3 million people. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

An example in Utah — kind of 

There’s not a lot of evidence to indicate that the idea behind Senate Bill 180 will work. Proponents of the measure often point to Salt Lake City, where the Utah Transit Authority in February raised money to offer free transit trips. 

State Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat and another prime sponsor of the measure, called the UTA initiative “highly successful,” but the data is difficult to parse because of how COVID-19 has affected ridership. 

The UTA, which serves seven counties in the Salt Lake City area, raised about $2.5 million to offer the free trips and reported surging ridership in February over January on weekdays (up 16.2%), Saturdays (up 58.1%) and Sundays (up 32.5%). 

The UTA conducted a survey and found that 22% of riders in February were new, 72% of whom said they were riding because the service was free. Those new riders said they would ride RTA more frequently if it were free. But the survey didn’t ask people if they were more likely to continue using transit if they had to pay. 

In this Monday, April 16, 2012 photo, a Utah Transit Authority train passes through a railroad crossing in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Deseret News, Kristin Murphy)

Megan Waters, the community engagement manager at UTA, said the agency was pleased with the increased ridership, but she admitted it’s tough to truly gauge how offering free transit trips affected ridership given that passenger numbers still haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, including during free-fare February.

January was also when the omicron coronavirus variant was spreading across the country. By February, the variant’s spread had slowed.

“I think right now we are in a really rough time to compare, with the pandemic changing all the time,” she said.

Waters said that while UTA was interested in seeing how offering free fares in February would affect ridership, the goal of the initiative wasn’t necessarily to build long-term passenger habits, which is why the agency’s poll didn’t ask about riders returning when they had to pay. The main goal was to improve air quality during a particularly bad air season in the Salt Lake City area. 

The Salt Lake City skyline is obscured by dense fog as an inversion settles over the valley Tuesday Dec. 26, 2017. (Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

“I did not personally bet on this because of what we saw in Utah,” said state Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat who is working on the bill. “But what I bet on is we know that for a certain period of time, it helps us to get more cars off the road. Let’s give it a shot — and that includes the upside of being able to maybe capture new riders.”

Setting up transit agencies for success

The original plan for Senate Bill 180 was to offer free fares on ozone alert days, of which there were 65 between May 31, 2021, and Aug. 31, 2021, the highest on record. 

But the proponents of the measure decided that wouldn’t necessarily breed success. For instance, RTD, which would receive $11 million in each of the next two years to waive its fares, has been struggling to hire drivers and would want to be prepared for any increase in ridership caused by waiving fares.

Instead of offering free fares on ozone days, RTD and the bill’s sponsors settled on waiving fares for the whole month of August in 2022 and 2023. 

Troy Whitmore, who sits on the RTD board of directors, told lawmakers that his agency is concerned about having enough drivers for a free-fare August and whether it can handle the corresponding security needs.

Winter said the important thing is that when people get on an RTD train or bus during free-fare August that they are inclined to come back.

“We want to make sure we’re setting up all the agencies for success,” Winter said. “And so when we’re asking RTD to provide free transit, that’s not just about farebox replacement, that’s about hiring and recruiting drivers. It’s about cleanliness and safety and security. We need this to be a success. We need the experience to be great.”

As for how RTD plans to encourage people to use the free transit, a spokeswoman for the agency said “it’s too early to talk about our plans for fare-free August.”

“RTD is preliminarily preparing internally how to implement fare-free transit if the bill passes,” spokeswoman Marta Sipeki said.

Proponents of the measure expect RTD to advertise the waived fares. The $22 million can also be used for that purpose. 

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

In Salt Lake City, the UTA relied on earned media — i.e. stories in local news outlets — and partner organizations to get the word out about its free-fare February. The state’s transportation department posted about the initiative on its digital highway road signs. And, finally, UTA did purchase some billboards to advertise the program. 

“I would not say we spent heavily,” said Waters, UTA’s community engagement manager.

Whitmore said RTD will “have a full-fledged PR campaign,” but the details of that campaign appear to still be in the works. He also said RTD isn’t sure how well free-fare August will work out.

“I don’t know that we have a good estimate,” Whitmore said.

What else is in the bill

RTD isn’t the only Colorado transit agency that would benefit from Senate Bill 180. 

The legislation also sets aside $6 million to allocate $3 million in each of the next two years to other transit agencies — including the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority that serves people in the Aspen and Glenwood Springs area — so that they, too, could offer free fares in the summer. Agencies would have to apply for grants from the Colorado Energy Office.

“Every transit agency in the state is eligible and I would expect them all to apply,” said Sen. Nick Hinrischsen, a Pueblo Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill.

The measure also would allocate $30 million to the Colorado Department of Transportation to establish a pilot project to expand transit, including through additional bus trips on Interstate 70 and Interstate 25.

Senate Bill 180 is awaiting final approval in the House.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....