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Union Station is seen on August 1, 2022 in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

After Colorado offered $28 million to make public transit free for the month of August — in an effort to ease air pollution when ozone levels are highest — many riders stayed, even after fares returned, new data from participating agencies across the state show. 

While ridership numbers dipped after the no-fare promotion ended, at least nine of the 14 public transit agencies that participated in the Zero Fare for Better Air program saw more riders in September compared with July, including the Regional Transportation District — which saw a 14% increase in its average weekday ridership from July to September, according to the agency’s final report on the program submitted to the state Wednesday. The agency also reported a 13% increase in monthly riders in September compared with the same time last year.

Four agencies did not respond to The Colorado Sun’s request for ridership data. Mountain Metropolitan Transit in Colorado Springs did not see sustained ridership levels from the zero-fare promotion, though numbers in August marked a 39% increase over August 2021 and were 2% shy of pre-pandemic levels, data shows. 

For RTD in the Denver metro area and many other participating transit agencies across the state, the growth marked the highest ridership levels since the pandemic began. For some, the number of riders continued to grow after the fares returned, like for La Junta Transit in southeast Colorado, where the number of monthly riders jumped 16% from July to September.

It’s hard to pinpoint the catalysts for those choosing public transportation over their cars in the month after the program as transit agencies rebound from record-low numbers during the pandemic, and the impacts on the environment remain unclear. But some transit experts hope the numbers are a harbinger of new habits.

“Because we’re such a small system, we know most of our riders. We know their kids and their grandkids and their dogs and their neighbors,” said Dawn Block, transit coordinator for La Junta Transit. “We saw new faces and I want to say at least 50% of those we have seen in September and October.”

Grants from the Colorado Office of Energy, allocated under Senate Bill 180, which also sought to increase the popularity of transit, allowed agencies to waive fares on buses and trains during the hottest and smoggiest month of year. 

The $28 million was allocated for free fares in August 2022 and August 2023, with $11 million each year going to RTD and $3 million each year going to smaller transit agencies.

But air quality impacts from the boost in riders are hard to quantify without a baseline given, according to the RTD’s report on the program, which is slated to repeat for a month next summer for the agency and several others across the state.

In recommendations for next year’s program, the agency called for improved tracking methods on how waived fares impact the state’s air quality.

There were no significant overcrowding issues or increase in crime on RTD’s buses or trains as ridership surged by 22% in August, compared with July and up 36% from August 2021, RTD reported.

The agency deemed the program “a success in encouraging ridership,” but warned that next year that might not hold true if rider levels continue to rebound after the pandemic or if more people choose to take advantage of the waived fares, the report stated.

RTD customers reported minimal day-to-day disruptions and said they appreciated the waived fares, RTD General Manager and CEO Debra Johnson said, citing ridership surveys. Drawing conclusions from the one-month pilot is challenging, as numbers can be influenced by the start of the school year and large scheduled events, like the Colorado Avalanche games during the NHL playoffs and the Stanley Cup championship parade.

Of the riders who answered the surveys, 91% said they had used RTD services before August and 55% indicated they used them more throughout the month.

“The purpose of public transit lies in the value it provides, and RTD’s participation in this initiative enabled customers to experience the value of our services, whether their travel habits changed for a day, a month or the whole of the pandemic,” Johnson said in a statement. 

For some of the smaller and more rural transit agencies, including Durango Transit and South Central Council of Governments (serving Huerfano and Las Animas counties), the program attracted new riders, according to the public transportation advocacy group Colorado Association of Transit Agencies, or CASTA.

In La Junta, a town of about 7,000 in southeastern Colorado, some residents didn’t know about the transit services until they heard it on the radio or were forced to ride the bus due to issues with their personal vehicle.

“But then it’s the best thing since sliced bread,” said Block, the La Junta transit coordinator. “And they tell all their friends and all of their neighbors.” She’s hoping additional advertising next year will help spread awareness.

While ridership continued to grow after the zero-fare promotion ended for many agencies, the end of vacation season and the start of the school year could factor into the boost, transit leaders warned.

The Archuleta County Mountain Express, which runs in Pagosa Springs, Arboles and Durango, recorded 612 riders in September, a 105 bump from ridership in July. The transit agency is exploring a way to make transit free year-round, according to CASTA.

Pueblo Transit, which offered free service from the city’s largest food distribution site in August, also saw sustained ridership numbers after fares returned with about 17% more riders recorded in September compared with July. 

And in Fountain, south of Colorado Springs along Interstate 25, 135 more people rode the bus in September than in July.

“We were very happy with what we saw during that month because we think it helped us get back a lot of our pre-COVID riders,” Todd Evans, Fountain’s deputy city manager said. 

Despite a driver shortage, Evans said he is eager for the town to participate in the program next year and extend the promotion June through August, if possible.

“One hundred percent. As long as we don’t get to the point where we’re overloading our buses and we don’t have too many riders for our buses,” he said. 

A monthlong zero-fare program was a challenge for Greeley-Evans Transit, known as GET, because it was down about six drivers, but the $30,000 grant helped the agency cover overtime costs, according to CASTA, which collected feedback from the agencies. 

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Though GET offers free transit for children year-round, the Zero Fare program allowed a mother to join her child on the bus several times to help find the best route home once after-school programs ended, said Ann Rajewski, executive director of CASTA.

More than $2 million of state money allocated for transit agencies across the state was left unused after two of the state’s largest transit agencies chose not to participate because of driver shortages. Some of that money will likely cover expenses for agencies that spent more money during the August promotion than they requested in their grant proposals, Rajewski said.

“We were kind of flying blind this time around,” she said.

How the remaining funds are spent is still up in the air, she said. One possibility is that the money could be used to cover free transit next June before the end of the state’s fiscal year. 

The extra funding could potentially help some agencies offer free transit for three months, which would give people a longer time to form a new habit of riding public transportation, Rajewski said.

“I think there would be some real value,” she said. “Not just in terms of trying to get some new riders to ride there, but also for agencies to make even more informed decisions about how they want to move forward.”

Olivia Prentzel

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer for The Colorado Sun. Email: oliviaprentzel@coloradosun.com