Colorado lawmakers have RTD in sights for major overhaul — including big changes for elected board

Colorado lawmakers have RTD in sights for major overhaul — including big changes for elected board

Sponsors say bill, still being drafted, would improve local transit coordination and bolster housing goals.
February 7, 2024

By Seth Klamann and Noelle Phillips | Denver Post

DENVER — Colorado lawmakers are drafting legislation that would deliver a sweeping overhaul of the Regional Transportation District — significantly reshaping and downsizing the governing board to remove nearly all elected seats while attempting to align the transit agency’s planning with broader housing and climate initiatives.

As formulated by the legislation’s three Democratic sponsors, who represent suburban areas, the broad outlines of the upcoming bill seek to bolster local governments’ coordination with — and influence over — the metro Denver agency. The legislators also hope to address RTD’s longstanding operator shortage and to launch the most substantial revamp of RTD’s governance structure since the early 1980s, when Colorado voters converted its board to all-elected members.

The draft has not yet been finalized, but the sponsors said in an interview Tuesday that the emerging proposal reflects their desire — shared by Gov. Jared Polis — to align the state’s climate, housing and transportation goals this year and into the future. But the changes also risk inflaming existing tensions between Denver and its suburban neighbors over the direction of the transit system.

The governor and his legislative allies plan to push denser, more strategic development, cut down on car usage and assuage skeptical local government officials who worry about the impact of those broader measures.

“We’ve been having a conversation for two years about how do we increase density and affordability of housing around transit-oriented corridors, and working with our local governments,” said Sen. Faith Winter of Westminster. “(Local governments) said, ‘That’s great, but we don’t have reliable transit.’

“So that leads us to the conversation of: How do we make sure we’re getting reliable transit and increasing transit?”

Winter, along with Reps. William Lindstedt of Broomfield and Meg Froelich of Englewood, set their sights on seeking change in how RTD operates.

The most eye-catching of their bill concepts is a plan to remake RTD’s board.

RTD now is governed by a 15-person board whose members are elected to four-year terms from geographic districts touching eight counties. According to a conceptual outline of the bill distributed by the sponsors last week, they are considering proposing that the board be cut down to seven members — all but one of them appointed.

According to that document:

- Three members would be appointed directly by the governor to represent a transit rider from a “disproportionately impacted community”; a budgeting or public financing expert; and an expert in either transportation planning, development or electrification.

- One member would be the head of the Colorado Department of Transportation or a designee.

- The Denver Regional Council of Governments would choose two members from across the region — one of them a mayor or city council member, the other a county commissioner.

- Voters within RTD’s boundaries would select the seventh member in an at-large election.

Froelich said the composition of RTD’s board was still being discussed but that there would be a mix of appointed and elected members in the bill.

She and the other legislators said they wanted the board to be “professionalized” like the panels that oversee similar transit boards elsewhere across the country — most of which, save for a handful, are appointed, not elected. The sponsors noted that in the 2022 election, four current RTD members were elected as write-in candidates because nobody qualified for the ballot.

Lindstedt said the board should “reflect the region and have the skill sets to be able to manage such a large mass transit agency in a professional manner.”

Some worry board revamp would disenfranchise riders

Several directors on RTD’s board did not respond to messages or declined to comment Tuesday. Board chair Erik Davidson said he had been told that the concepts in the bill outline weren’t final, and he didn’t want to comment because the measure was still being drafted.

Debra A. Johnson, the agency’s CEO and general manager, echoed that sentiment in a separate statement.

Board Director JoyAnn Ruscha, stressing that she was speaking only for herself, said the potential board overhaul “effectively disenfranchises people of color and our transit-dependent riders.” Local taxpayers fund and ride RTD, she said, and they should be directly represented on the board.

“I have no shame in the fact that I don’t have an advanced degree, or that I’m not a transportation planner, or that I didn’t get an MBA,” said Ruscha, whose District B includes northeast Denver and northern Aurora. “My family lived and died by the bus.”

RTD, formed in 1969, had an appointed board for more than a decade. In 1980, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers and activists spearheaded a statewide voter initiative to convert the board to all-elected members. The campaign, called “Citizens for an Accountable RTD,” passed by a margin of more than 100,000 votes.

Since then, legislators have broached the idea of adding appointed members or changing the board, but none of those efforts were successful. Among common criticisms of the elected model is that it pits regional interests against each other.

Besides the board changes, this year’s budding measure also would direct RTD to coordinate its planning with the Denver Regional Council of Governments, a planning organization bringing together representatives from metro-area municipalities and counties.

The objective is to ensure that RTD’s fixed routes align with local governments’ density and transit-oriented development objectives.

Froelich characterized the goal as “increased synergy” for work on a range of issues, including transit-oriented communities and development, meeting greenhouse gas emission targets and solving workforce shortages.

“All of that hinges upon reliable regional service from our transit agencies,” she said. “And the reason that we flow into the governance questions is (that) we want to set up a government system that gives us our best shot at that.”

The plan comes as two intertwining legislative packages begin to wind their way through the Capitol this year. One — a suite of land-use bills — seeks to encourage denser and more strategic development in Front Range cities, with a particular eye toward transit access. The other is a series of measures intended to bolster access to and use of public transit. That includes a bill to facilitate the creation of a statewide transit pass.

The ongoing debate in the state Capitol over ways to increase development along and near transit corridors has helped shape the RTD overhaul now being contemplated.

Last year, local governments opposed Polis’ sweeping land-use reforms almost uniformly, largely because of local control concerns but also over criticisms about the access and reliability of public transit.”

Lindstedt said the bill would seek to provide the type of increased accountability that local governments “so desperately ask for over the mass transit system that they rely on when they’re making those land-use decisions.”

The bill also would aim to address RTD’s operator shortage — vacancy rates were at 15% for bus drivers and 18% for light-rail train operators as of November — by embracing an existing CDOT program that trains vehicle operators.

It would also propose changes to how the agency interprets Title VI, a provision of the federal Civil Rights Act that protects people and underserved communities from discrimination in federally funded programs, including transit. Winter said the intent was to ensure RTD can provide transportation for special events or for specific populations without being viewed as violating Title VI. Examples of potential special services cited in the outline include Denver Broncos games — similar to the large-scale BroncosRide shuttle service that RTD used to offer but discontinued — and big concerts.

Broomfield mayor: “We have no control” over RTD service

The legislators said an overarching goal is to improve coordination and accountability between RTD and local governments.

Broomfield Mayor Guyleen Castriotta said Tuesday that her city and other north metro municipalities were fed up with paying money into RTD and getting little service in exchange. RTD’s post-pandemic service restorations have favored routes with higher demand and ridership, which often are in or near Denver, over geographic coverage.

Broomfield pays $17 million annually to RTD but only has one bus line — the Flatiron Flyer — that stops in the city. (RTD also provides point-to-point FlexRide service in much of the city.)

“We’re forced to pay the same amount every year, but we have no control over what kind of service RTD decides to give us,” she said.

The greatest lament in northwest communities — a complaint voiced often by Polis and some other officials — is RTD’s failure, due to insufficient funding, to build out the full B-Line commuter rail train to Boulder and Longmont as promised.

Polis previewed his desires for RTD reform in his January State of the State address, in which he said that state leaders “must reexamine governance and operational efficiencies” at the agency while improving local partnerships and transit-oriented development.

Ruscha, the RTD board member, expressed concern with the bill’s overall intent, including any proposed changes to how RTD interprets Title VI. She said the board already coordinated with the council of governments.

“I do not think that this bill concept is going to address the pain points that people have with RTD, as I can see it,” she said, relying on the conceptual outline.

Chris Nicholson, a regular rider of RTD buses and trains, is a candidate for RTD’s District A board seat in the November election to represent areas including central and east Denver. He said he did not disagree that RTD needed updates to how it operates.

But he questioned why everything should be addressed in one big bill and how a requirement that RTD coordinate on service plans with the council of governments would make it more nimble. He questioned how the sponsors did their homework, noting that a presentation provided to interested parties never mentions riders — beyond the criteria for one of the governor’s appointees — disabilities, people of color or people with low incomes.

“This has not been the kind of process that has centered people who really matter in this conversation,” Nicholson said. “Those people are not the governor or the people in the legislature.”

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