RTD’s board met on Tuesday, August 11th to consider a range of issues. Director Shontel Lewis’ alternative safety measures resolution (co-sponsored by Directors Walker and Williams) and the board’s discussion of fares in the 2021-2026 Mid-term Financial Plan drew most of the attention. .
Some information about these items and my thoughts can be found below.
The alternative safety measures resolution called for the cessation of RTD’s contract with Allied Security and intergovernmental agreements with police departments in Denver, Aurora, and Arvada by December 31st, 2020. At the same time, the funds would be directed toward mental, behavioral, and social supports (i.e. social workers, medical professionals, homeless outreach workers, and transit ambassadors). A community working group would be established to evaluate safety on RTD as well
I agree with a couple elements of the resolution. The mental, behavioral, and social supports proposed could have a substantial impact on RTD without compromising safety; armed security is not the only means to that end. First, the trained professionals could administer aid to some of the most vulnerable populations who use RTD’s services and facilities. That these situations have arisen is outside of RTD’s control, but it can make a difference in its spaces and for its riders. If the current approach is not working, perhaps it is time to try something new. Second, other transit systems across the United States have implemented programs where unarmed personnel check fares, provide assistance, enforce nuisance behaviors, and provide a presence (more serious matters are still referred to the police). Transit ambassadors could do the same here.
My hesitations concern the timeline and ending the police department agreements. After the delay in this resolution’s appearance before the board, the fourth-and-a-half month turnaround to implement these changes seems challenging. Additionally, other transit systems have noted that ambassadors act as “force multipliers” that can still refer to police when necessary. Given the small size of the RTD Transit Police, I am not sure what ending those agreements would mean for more serious incidents.
The resolution failed 14 to 1, with Director Lewis the only aye. Several directors emphasized the importance of this conversation now and in the future, even supporting the proposed task force, while others outright rejected it. The process was curious. I found the proposal last month, so presumably concerns and feedback could have been submitted to make it more agreeable to directors ahead of the meeting (Dir. Lewis said there were none). Additionally, there was some feedback about RTD not getting into “social work”, which seems to be a narrow reading of the resolution given the mention of transit ambassadors (interestingly, when the valuable Access-a-Ride grocery delivery service was introduced this spring, few complaints were voiced—presumably RTD would not consider itself to be a grocer either). I hope there is follow through with the introduction of another measure and creation of a community group to examine what safety and security on RTD should look like.
The discussion of fares in the 2021-2026 Mid-term Financial Plan (MTFP) centered on three possibilities.
A number of board members noted the high cost riders are paying and voiced support for option 2 (which is similar to the fare freeze I have proposed). Director Williams identified option 3, the fare reduction, as most appealing. In doing so, these directors put riders at the forefront of the discussion—something the board must continue to do.
The financial impacts of all three proposals are sobering. RTD faces a tremendous uphill climb in generating revenue: ridership may not return to pre-COVID levels for a few years, if at all; raising fares would place an excessive burden on riders who may already be facing financial challenges and prompt them to abandon transit altogether. Even if farebox collections account for less than 20% of revenue, they still matter in the absence of more drastic changes (i.e. increased municipal funding, parking fees, dipping into FISA, selling land, etc.). While I would support eliminating fare increases, I am not sure about reducing fares given the severe financial strain RTD is facing. How much stress can the agency endure before further service cuts occur?