RTD has a security problem that is causing some commuters to opt out of mass transit altogether. If left unchecked, it threatens to subvert the multibillion-dollar FasTracks project enacted by voters nearly two decades ago.
You can count me among those who eschew the system due to rising concerns.
Living in Lakewood, I can walk to two different light rail stations within 30 minutes. Both the Wadsworth Park-n-Ride Station and Garrison Station are stops along the W Line. The latter is just three blocks north of my church, set in an otherwise quiet residential neighborhood. It is a stop without parking and typically meant for passengers riding a bike, walking or being dropped off.
It is also the location where a group of juveniles assaulted a 45-year-old man, beat him and pushed him from the train. His injuries were so severe he needed to be rushed to St. Anthony’s Hospital for treatment. A few weeks later along the same line, another man fell victim to a brutal attack that broke multiple bones and required reconstructive facial surgery.
Eventually, 14 juvenile assailants were identified and charged by the Jefferson County District Attorney for those brazen attacks. Two originally pleaded guilty in February leading the rest to accept their own plea deals. Last week, most were sentenced to two years of probation, 75-100 hours of community service and various counseling classes for anger management and substance misuse.
Of course, in the interim, another man was beaten and robbed along the W Line, just south of Mile High Stadium and across the county line in Denver.
These incidents make RTDs light rail system seem to be something more akin to the 1970s New York subway in the violent cult classic movie “The Warriors.” All we are missing is a set of clinking bottles and deranged maniac chanting, “Denverites, come out to play! Denverites, come our to pla-aay!”
Obviously this is a top-of-the-mind concern for RTD. It was the impetus behind hiring Dr. Joel Fitzgerald Sr. as their Chief of Police and Emergency Management last year. And despite staffing shortages and private security concerns, RTD can point to a significant declining trend in criminal incidents.
I always prefer data over anecdotes, but you do not have to be a fan of HBO’s “The Wire” to appreciate the possibility of “juking the stats.” And it is tough to ignore a pattern of high-profile incidents like those above.
It becomes even harder when first-hand experience supports the anecdotal evidence.
I have ridden the W Line since its inception just over 10 years ago. While not always the most convenient, it offered both a climate-friendly option and lowish cost alternative to gas plus parking. Going downtown for dinner or out to the airport, I used the route several times per month.
I even urged my wife and stepdaughter to do the same when they were headed to Mile High or the latter’s dorm on the Metro State University campus. The same line literally had a stop at her doorstep.
But in recent years I have personally seen the ever-growing public disturbances allowed to proliferate on the trains. I have watched riders smoke various substances in their seats. I have seen threatening gestures made to intimidate other passengers into giving up seats. I have heard individuals blare music through Bluetooth speakers so loudly that no one else in the car could carry on a conversation.
Once, at the Garrison Station, I got off and literally had to step over two individuals who were so incoherent as they smoked from a glass pipe that they did not seem to notice the exiting crowd trying to get around them.
I am empathetic to anyone suffering from substance use disorders and believe in solutions that provide treatment over incarceration. Furthermore, despite the regular outcry against public encampments downtown, I have never personally had a negative interaction despite regularly walking through encampments to my beloved British Bulldog bar (the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Urban Peak are both across the street).
Housing and help are the answers for those that do not have anywhere else to go.
But ceding the public transit stops to disruptive and confrontational individuals creates a disincentive to mass transit that defeats the primary purpose of the light rail and bus system. The more frequent the occurrences, the less frequently riders with options will choose mass transit.
That is bad for RTD, bad for the climate and bad for Denver.
Maybe that means a stronger security presence on train cars. Maybe it means changing how people access the platforms for waiting — no one without tickets allowed. Maybe it just means helping people who use the train for warmth and shelter find a better option.
Whatever happens needs to happen sooner than later. Otherwise RTD may not find even free rides are enough to entice people back.
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