More than $2 million in state money allocated to make public transit free this month — in a push to boost ridership and ease pollution — will go unused as some regional transportation agencies say they don’t have enough drivers to handle a ridership surge.
Statewide, 14 transportation agencies, including the Regional Transportation District in the Denver metro area, will waive fares on buses and trains during one of the hottest and smoggiest months of the year.
But two of the largest agencies didn’t seek grant funds for free transit rides.
The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, serving communities from Rifle to Aspen, and Grand Valley Transit in Grand Junction didn’t apply because they feared they wouldn’t be able to provide reliable service to a possible influx of passengers lured by free rides, said Ann Rajewski, executive director of Colorado Association of Transit Agencies, a public transportation advocacy group.
“Everyone I know has an employee shortage, but you can’t fake a driver. You might be able to have longer lines at a restaurant, but it looks like canceling routes if you don’t have enough drivers,” Rajewski said. “So it really shows up and has really big impacts on the rider.”
Senate Bill 180 allocated $28 million to let public transportation agencies offer free train and bus trips in August 2022 and 2023. The Colorado Energy Office set aside $11 million for RTD for this year and next, and $3 million each year for CASTA, which provides grants to smaller agencies.
CASTA distributed $886,811, or less than one-third of the money available this year, to the 13 agencies that submitted project proposals, ranging from $300 for free rides in rural Bent County to $674,109 for Colorado Springs’ Mountain Metropolitan Transit.
“We were able to give everyone everything they asked for,” Rajewski said. “That’s partly because some of those bigger agencies weren’t able to participate this time around.”
She hopes Roaring Fork Valley Transportation Authority and Grand Valley Transit will participate next year.
For now, how the remaining $2,106,096 will be spent is unclear.
The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, which recorded 3,188,831 one-way trips in 2021, had already cut its summer schedule by 10% due to a driver shortage, largely caused by COVID-induced stressors, RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship said in an interview Monday.
He worried a boost in riders, lured by free rides, would result in unreliable service for the transit agency that’s already strapped for drivers. At the start of the summer season, RFTA had about 145 bus drivers, about 40 drivers fewer than what was needed to run a full schedule, Blankenship said.
“When people are encouraged to use this service as it’s free, but then the bus is full and standing-room only and you have to leave people at the bus stop, well, that’s not putting our best foot forward,” he said. The agency has about 160 drivers now, but needs 200, ideally, for the winter season.
Providing affordable housing for employees has posed a challenge. While RFTA offers a starting wage of $23.98 for year-round drivers during their first year on the job, studio and loft apartments in the area are typically listed at $1,800 to $2,000 a month, he said.
Blankenship said the agency is seeking more affordable housing opportunities for employees, including motels that are for sale that can be renovated.
He had hoped that waiving fares for the month would help attract new riders and bring back previous customers who may have stopped riding the bus due to the pandemic. Across all of the agency’s routes, ridership through June is down 25% since 2019, data from the agency shows.
“It’s really regrettable, but you know, we had no choice other than to provide a really unreliable service that would have turned off a lot of people who came to transit for the first time or possibly were coming back to it,” he said.
Grand Valley Transit planner Andrew Gingerich voiced similar concerns.
Drivers are working overtime, and waiving fares for August would be risking poor service, especially along routes that serve a high number of vulnerable people, including those with disabilities, Gingerich said. “We are already digging into our driver resources pretty deeply.”
About 1,400 people a day use Grand Valley Transit to get between Grand Junction, Fruita, Palisade and parts of unincorporated Mesa County within the metro area, according to 2021 ridership data.
Gingerich applauded the state program, calling it a “really good opportunity for agencies across the state,” and hopes Grand Valley Transit can apply for next year.
He’s hopeful the wage boost for drivers to $17 per hour, from $15.50, will attract more drivers to make that possible.
To help offset carbon emissions in a way that is manageable with its drivers, the transit agency is offering free rides on Fridays and Saturdays through the month, Gingerich said.
“We’re participating as much as we can,” he said.
The Colorado Department of Transportation isn’t pleased that Grand Valley Transit opted out and encouraged the agency to look at how other larger transit systems in the program overcame their concerns regarding ridership surges, according to a July 29 memo from the Colorado Department of Transportation and Energy Office to the director of Mesa County’s regional transportation planning office.
“CEO and CDOT stand ready to assist however we can to bring Grand Valley Transit into this beneficial program for congestion and air quality,” the memo said. “Getting more people into public transit is vitally important to our state goals and it is critically important that Coloradans across the state have the opportunity to benefit from this important program.”
The idea behind the state’s program was to get Coloradans to try transit in the hopes that they will form a habit.
Sen. Nick Hinrichsen, a Pueblo Democrat and a prime sponsor of Senate Bill 180, said he had expected every transit agency in the state to apply, but wasn’t completely surprised to hear that driver shortages got in the way of participation.
“We’ve sort of identified that one of the best things that we can do for sustainable planning is to reinvest in transit. We’re going through some systematic stressors, so I think we’re seeing that in play here,” he said.
“I’d love to see all agencies use it in Colorado, but I think one of the things you have there is a good baseline because with them not using it, we’ll be able to see what their ridership levels did.”
But lack of participation by some agencies echoed the concerns of critics who said the transit initiative wouldn’t encourage more riders to become regular riders.
Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, called the program “misconceptualized.”
“There’s not a capacity to use it,” said Lundeen, who voted against the bill. “That’s one of the many philosophical problems I have with so many Democrat concepts is ‘We’ll throw taxpayer money at it and it’ll magically solve a big problem we all care about.’ It just doesn’t always work that way and I think this is a really good example of that.”
Agencies that are participating in “Zero Fare for Better Air“
Money granted to 13 transit agencies, through CASTA, will fund a range of projects aimed at lowering ground-level ozone, from offering free rides on existing train and bus lines to expanding service for riders.
More than two dozen transit companies that already offer free rides year-round were ineligible for funding. Some transit systems are using the grant money to fund pilot programs for new routes.
Pueblo Transit will offer free service from the city’s largest food distribution site, Care and Share Food Bank, to the Transit Center, according to CASTA.
In Prowers County, on the Colorado-Kansas border, service will be expanded this month connecting the communities of Holly, Granada, Hartman, Bristol and Wiley to resources in Lamar. The route will start in Granada and run five days a week, Rajewski said. She hopes the expanded service helps residents familiarize themselves with public transportation in rural areas.
“Sometimes they know there’s a bus that picks up maybe their great-grandmother or their grandmother and takes her to the food site or a doctor’s appointment. But what they don’t maybe realize is that that’s public transit,” Rajewski said. “It’s not known that we have, depending on what community or region you’re in, some really nice public transit service in rural parts of our state.”
The Archuleta County Mountain Express is one of those rural transit services that now offers free rides. The bus service runs in Pagosa Springs, Arboles and Durango, with a ridership base of hikers as well as older adults.
“We have a high elderly population in this area. A lot of retirees, and they’re on a fixed income,” transportation coordinator Laura Vanoni said. “As we see the gas prices going up, we’re seeing more and more riders struggling to come up with the fares.”
The Mountain Express averaged 500 rides a month for its fixed routes, with its paratransit and dial-a-ride services averaging at 150 rides a month in 2022. Mountain Express was awarded $560 from the Ozone Season Transit Grant program. They anticipate a bump in ridership.
“We’ll have an increase, I think, in dial-a-ride or paratransit services. Because once people start realizing it’s free, they’re going to be trying to use it a lot more frequently,” Vanoni said. “I can see that increase, but our typical bus routes will not deviate.”
The Greeley-Evans Transit (GET) serves a wider range of riders across Greeley, Evans and Garden City, and also transports people on the Poudre Express to Fort Collins and Windsor. The service was awarded a total of $30,000 from the grant program.
They also anticipate an increase in ridership, despite initial driver shortage concerns.
“It’s been a big concern since COVID. We were down quite a few drivers. But over the years, we’ve been able to recruit and train new drivers on the road and right now we’re only down three drivers,” transit manager Michelle Johnson said. “I am a little concerned that we will have a large ridership, but we don’t anticipate cutting services or cutting routes.”
Prior to COVID, GET made 840,000 yearly fixed-route trips. The system’s numbers are slowly coming back, along with its drivers, with 398,665 fixed-route trips and 17,345 paratransit riders recorded in 2021.
And just like the many other transit services that CASTA funded through the grant, Greeley officials are optimistic the free rides will bring in more people.
“I’m hoping that they’ll get familiar with, and see how easy it is, to ride GET,” Johnson said, “and we hope that it continues even after the free ride services are over at the end of August.”
“We do hope that customers will be patient”
RTD received the majority of the funding, totaling $8.68 million for use the entire month of August. RTD’s “Zero Fare for Better Air Initiative” aims to reduce ground-level ozone that worsens air quality in the Front Range counties now out of compliance with EPA standards.
In its application to the Colorado Energy Office, RTD budgeted $250,000 to market the program and said it expects lost revenue in August to exceed the $8.68 million grant by $587,964.
“It takes 21 days to form or break a habit,” RTD interim assistant general manager Marta Sipeki said. “We’re giving customers 31 days to hop on the RTD system. And we’re hoping that by hopping on, they can form a new travel habit and continue using RTD after August.”
RTD ridership, however, is still recovering from the pandemic. The transit agency is still struggling to hire drivers: There is a 21% vacancy rate of bus operators, 17% vacancy rate among light rail operators, and a 25% vacancy rate among N-Line commuter rail engineers.
RTD has proposed a five-year plan to cut more than 20 bus routes based on changes in ridership and the driver shortage. But in August, service will be unchanged.
“We do not have the capacity to either expand our services during the month of August, or increase our frequency. So, service is going to be our current service level,” Sipeki said. “Because just like all industries, we do have a people-power shortage.
“We do hope that customers will be patient, because obviously there are going to be a lot more people riding RTD.”
CASTA is encouraging riders who use the bus and train this month to log their trips in the Zero Fare for Better Air trip tracker, which will show how many miles each rider has traveled, and how much carbon dioxide and gas money was saved.
Each transit agency is also required to submit ridership reports later this year for officials to track the success of the program.
Rajewski said it’s her hope that agencies can offer free rides June through August next year. “My goal as a transit advocate is: we would love to see all that money out on the street making it happen, making more transit available to folks.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 1:24 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022 to reflect that the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority recorded 3,188,831 one-way trips in 2021.