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RTD Is In Crisis—What Went Wrong?

RTD wanted to transform how people in the Denver metro area get around. But more than 50 years after it began, most people still drive, pollution persists, and the agency is in crisis. I went back to its beginning to find out how—and when—the problems started.

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In the 1970s, the newly formed Regional Transportation District (RTD) had plans to create a transit system that would be a marvel. It envisioned a future with elevated transit stations where you could push a button to select your destination and a space-age pod would appear. Hop in and you would be whisked away over a network of overhead tracks crisscrossing 100 miles around the Denver metro area.

This “Personal Rapid Transit” system is the backbone of A Public Transportation Plan for Colorado’s Regional Transportation District, a seven-volume set of plans developed in 1972 that sought to unite six counties with transit service so fast and frequent that owning a car would become an unnecessary extravagance.

The plan set out to solve some of the region’s most difficult problems, too. By encouraging smart growth and getting people out of cars and onto public transportation, RTD hoped to reduce traffic congestion and erase the recently arrived brown cloud. There was even mention of a subway on what is now the 16th Street Mall. The Denver Post called the plan, “one of the boldest—if not the boldest—public works plans in Colorado history.”

When I first heard of the agency’s early—and audacious—vision for the region, I was settling into a new job at Streetsblog Denver, a now-closed advocacy journalism nonprofit that covered the city’s efforts to improve walking, biking, and public transportation. My job was to become an expert on the region’s current transportation problems, including the worsening crisis at RTD.

As I learned more about the agency’s current woes—declining ridership, driver shortages, funding gaps, and more—I wondered: How did it all go wrong? A freelancer now, I started to travel back in time. I talked to some of the people who developed RTD’s original plans. I interviewed past members of its board of directors and government officials. I dove into hundreds of newspaper articles. And I learned that it all starts with Americans’ love of automobiles.

Death of the Tramway

In 1967, the Denver Tramway Corp., which ran a fleet of 231 buses in the region, went bankrupt. In one of its last annual reports, it blamed plummeting ridership on the region’s embrace of suburbs and car culture in the 1950s and 1960s. “Once most people took to the Tramway to shop downtown,” a report in the Denver Post read. “Now they go by car to 11 major shopping centers and 19 lesser ones.”

Drivers demanded even more highways, which cut through neighborhoods (notably one group of citizens rose up to defeat a proposed freeway that would have bulldozed through today’s Larimer Square). Eventually, state officials realized that building new roads and widening others couldn’t solve all the region’s transportation problems. They started talking about forming a public transportation system. “We needed transportation and we needed it other than highways,” says Jim Graebner, RTD’s fourth employee.

RTD Is Born

In 1969, a bipartisan group of state legislators passed the bill that established RTD. But the hardest part of launching a new transit agency—maintaining funding and finding more—was left up to RTD’s new board of directors and a handful of early staff. In 1973, they asked voters for a half-cent sales tax to build out their grand transportation plan, which focused on Personal Rapid Transit. “The metro area, from the late ’60s, always wanted to have some sort of transit system that wasn’t just bus-centric,” says Maria Garcia Berry, a former RTD board member and founder of CRL Associates (the consulting firm that would one day run the 2004 FasTracks campaign; more on that later). “It was always intended to be a multimodal system.”

But as RTD campaigned for funding, the agency did not sell the idea of buses, trains, or Personal Rapid Transit as an attractive transportation option for voters. Instead, it pitched mass transit as a benefit to people who wanted to continue driving as a way to reduce traffic congestion. “We sold it as a way to get ‘them’ out of their way,” says Roger Walton, RTD’s seventh employee and then director of public affairs. “It was, ‘We gotta get others off the roads.’” It worked; a driver told the Denver Post at the time: “I’m for it because I want everyone off the damn streets so I can drive my car.”

Growth Patterns

On September 7, 1973, voters approved the funding. RTD would spend the second half of the 1970s ramping up its bus network. But the agency’s plan required routes to pass through places with enough people to fill a nonstop stream of buses, trains, and Personal Rapid Transit vehicles. To achieve such density, RTD needed smart growth. Officials expected to work with communities to focus new suburban development in “activity centers,” places where clusters of taller buildings could provide much of what people need within walking distance. “They were designed to be self-supporting, with employment, healthcare, and homes,” says Walton.

But when the legislature designed RTD, few state, county, or city officials expected—or would welcome—the power the transit agency would ultimately have. RTD could issue taxes. It could take private property for public use through eminent domain. And its territory, which is larger than Rhode Island or Delaware, covered a large part of the Front Range.

As RTD tiptoed around shaping development, political turf wars erupted. “It was clear it would become the second-largest political jurisdiction, second only to the state itself,” Walton says. “And that creates political conflict with the rest of the political class.”

Who’s In Charge

By 1980, the federal government had killed its research into Personal Rapid Transit and had reneged on billions it had offered to build the system here. RTD had no plans in the works for rail or other modes of transportation. And most in the region lived nowhere near a bus stop. “By 1984, we were supposed to have this wonderful system built,” says Graebner. “Here it was 1980, and it was just a bus system.”

That year, voters approved a measure to turn the board of directors, then known for its bitter dysfunction, into an elected body accountable to voters. But the elected board came with problems of its own, especially since members often focused on providing service to small pockets within the districts they represented, not the entire system.

Governors and members of the state legislature often interfered in the agency’s business, too, including frequent attempts to increase oversight or change the makeup of the board. “[F]rom its formation, there were bills from the General Assembly trying to restructure it or create review commissions,” says Walton. But RTD’s problems continued to grow over the years, which likely indicates little good coming from the state’s actions.

The Big Idea

By the end of the 1980s, RTD wanted to add rail to its network. In 1994, it built the Central Corridor, a light rail line between the Five Points neighborhood and downtown. It also planned a 19-mile light rail segment along I-25 as part of the I-25 T-REX expansion. But the two lines weren’t enough to form a true network—a problem that FasTracks would solve.

Around that time, RTD hired Garcia Berry’s firm to run the FasTracks campaign. In focus groups, she discovered that voters wanted Denver to keep up with other cities. Like in RTD’s original 1973 election, residents were concerned about traffic congestion but they didn’t plan to ride transit themselves. “People bought into a vision that we were now a competitive national and international city,” she says. “And, to accommodate the growth we were having, we needed to build a system.”

In 2004, voters approved a 0.4 percent sales tax increase to build FasTracks, a gutsy plan to add not just 122 miles of rail track (so far, RTD has built 98.5 miles), but also the Flatiron Flyer rapid bus line (one of RTD’s most successful routes based on ridership), and a remodeled Union Station (now an iconic transit hub in a growing neighborhood), which includes a 22-gate bus concourse and rail platforms. “It was pretty ambitious of RTD,” says Garcia Berry.

Union Station. Photo by Natasha Gardner

But in 2008, the financial crisis cut the sales tax revenue RTD needed for its projects. Construction costs also rose dramatically. The price tag to establish the Northwestern rail line to Boulder and Longmont, for example, rose remarkably, from $460 million to $1.7 billion in 2012. Today, RTD faces severe financial fallout connected to the COVID-19 pandemic and senior staff recently urged the board to stop saving more than $10 million per year for unfinished FasTracks projects.

An Agency In Crisis

In recent years, and before the pandemic, the agency cut service frequently. Its drivers quit in striking numbers. And riders waited for buses and trains that often didn’t show up. As RTD’s service worsened, the rate of bus and train riders declined for the last five years, even as rail service expanded considerably and the population in the region increased by 388,000 from 2010 to 2018.

Beyond declining ridership, the big problems RTD first set out to solve persist. Traffic congestion, air pollution, and sprawl continue to burden the region. And the state legislature is still meddling. Before the body adjourned for the pandemic, there was another effort to shake up how RTD is governed and appoint a blue-ribbon commission to oversee the agency. “Blue ribbon commissions are wonderful,” says Walton, sarcastically. “They make everybody happy and nothing gets done.”

And while it is easy for state legislators or reporters to poke at RTD, from what I found, the root of today’s struggles might be in the agency’s original pitch to voters. RTD promised it would benefit drivers by easing traffic. It promised to make the region more competitive with other cities. It built a bus and rail network that looks impressive on a map. But for 73 percent of all trips within Denver today, someone drives alone.

That number—that nearly three out of four trips is a solo mission—highlights how few in the region find the current RTD system useful. With the legislature’s latest round of reform efforts on hold, it seems that now is an excellent time to consider a substantial makeover. Such a transformation would need significant changes to transit and land use policy, which would require a level of leadership that is rare not just here, but across the country. It would require a plan—perhaps, to echo the Denver Post from nearly 50 years ago, one of the boldest public works plans that we’ve ever seen. But, this time, it needs the long-term vision to make it happen.

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