Is RTD being downsized or rightsized?

Data Desk

DENVER (KDVR) — Could COVID-19 be cooling off potentially overheated economic areas?

Budget cutbacks have been hurting the Denver metro transit authority hard since the pandemic slashed daily commutes by at least half. With fewer Coloradans on the bus or train, RTD projects a $166 million budget shortfall alongside hundreds of employee layoffs and furloughs.

Some of these issues predate the pandemic, however.

RTD had considered service cutbacks and been dealing with driver shortages since before the pandemic began. This budget gap will return RTD’s finances to what they were a few years ago. Since 2015, its budget has ballooned by $270 million a year.

Ridership, however, was falling during the same years, even if expenses grew. Those operating expenses haven’t gone to more demand. RTD has lost 10 million annual boardings in the same time period.

Expenses haven’t kept pace with demand. RTD’s operational expenses per ride outstrip other large metro transit authorities.

RTD services a 2,300 square mile area covering eight counties and roughly 3 million residents. In 2019, the service had just more than 95 million boardings of its trains and buses. The same year, RTD had $1.2 billion in operating expenses and total revenues of $1.08 billion.

Data Desk charted this ratio of operational expenses to annual rides.

Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority had $2.25 billion in operating expenses and $2.7 billion in total revenues, serving 4.5 million people at 460 million annual rides.

The Central Puget Sound Transit Authority, which manages Seattle area transit, had operating expenses of $545.6 million for its 48.1 million annual rides. The Valley Metro Regional Public Transportation Authority in Phoenix has an annual ridership of 65.6 million at $348 million in operational expenses.

The Denver metro area is the least populous of the four, but it has the second highest budget and the highest rate of operating expenses per ride.

While each of those transit authorities serves a larger population than RTD, all but the MBTA have smaller expenses. RTD spends $12.63 in operational expenses per annual ride, more than all of the others and twice as much as both Phoenix and Boston’s transit systems.

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