RTD crisis: Operator shortage, high fares, lower ridership

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DENVER — The Regional Transportation District is at the crossroads of a crisis.

The agency already has some of the highest fares in the nation. Meanwhile, it is suffering from fewer riders and the growing issue of not having enough train and bus operators.

On Thursday, the agency will review results of a survey designed to tell transit officials what riders and employees think about the state of public transit in the Denver metro area.

RTD wants to know how people feel about the operator shortage as the agency considers service reductions.

In a growing metropolitan area, it might be surprising to learn RTD is considering cutting back on services.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s happening at the same time that RTD is trying to expand its service and improve its quality of service,” said University of Denver professor Andrew Goetz.

In recent days, thousands of train and bus riders have been let down as RTD canceled or delayed routes.

The agency is blaming those disruptions on an operator shortage. RTD says the shortage makes it difficult to backfill when an operator calls off work.

“It’s not something that is unique, though, just to RTD,” Goetz said. “It’s happening nationwide.”

What is more specific to RTD is the perfect storm of the operator shortage paired with high fares and declining ridership.

Goetz, an expert on transportation and urban studies, warns riders are most concerned about service reliability while remaining sensitive to what comes out of their wallets.

“The most recent fare increases have put RTD at a level where they are at the top amongst major transit systems in the country,” he said. “That’s not a good place to be.”

Goetz said while working to attract more operators, he would like to see RTD reduce fares to grow ridership. He says that could benefit everyone.

“It really comes down to a concept of elasticity of demand,” he said. “If you lower fares, you may very well get more riders. More riders may actually increase your total revenue for that — or at least be neutral.”

To attract more drivers, Goetz says RTD should not only consider paying more but also might have to focus on better working conditions.

“I know one of the issues for RTD drivers was their ability to be able to take breaks,” Goetz said.

On Thursday, RTD’s publicly elected board of directors will have a chance to debate if cutting service makes sense.

No decisions are expected during Thursday evening’s meeting.

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