Boulder, CU protest proposed RTD rate hikes, service cuts

If you go

What: Public meetings on proposed RTD service changes

Longmont

When: 6 p.m. Sept. 26

Where: Longmont Public Library Conference Room, 409 Fourth Ave.

Boulder

When: 6 p.m. Sept. 27

Where: Boulder Public Library Arapahoe Room, 1001 Arapahoe Ave,

Officials from Boulder and the University of Colorado are concerned over proposed rate increases and service cuts from RTD that they say will add millions of dollars in expenses to the city and CU budgets.

A preliminary vote on Tuesday night advanced fare increases across the metro area, including jumps in local and regional fares and the A-line to the airport. Also being bumped up is the cost for some popular pass programs that employers and the university provide to workers and students.

The increases are a matter of equity, RTD says, necessary to pay for two new discount programs for low-income residents and youth riders. The recommendations came out of a pass program working group that recently concluded its work.

“Some of the people who would benefit the most (from the Eco Pass) have the least access to it,” said John Tayer, president of the Boulder Chamber and a member of the working group.

The proposal is a 40 percent discount for those making at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $22,000 for a single person. RTD also is upping the discount for youth riders ages 6 to 19, to 70 percent.

Both discounts are “very positive things” that will help “provide passes to a broader cross-section” of our community, Tayer said. But the money to pay for them has to come from somewhere, said Scott Reed, an RTD spokesperson

University of Colorado grad students Haylee Rea and Grace Hutchinson board the Stampede bus on Colorado Avenue in Boulder on Wednesday ()

“Other fares needed to be increased in order to afford this extensive low-income program,” Reed said. “There shouldn‘t be any surprise that, yes, some fares are going up, (the cost of) some pass programs are going up. Some are going down.”

The biggest concern centers around increases to the College Pass program, paid for by CU student fees to the tune of $85 a semester. That could go up to $100 per semester, said university spokesperson Deborah Méndez Wilson, as RTD plans to charge CU an additional $2.9 million over the next three years, according to the transportation agency. (That number could change, based on ridership.)

“Please keep in mind that pricing for College Pass has not increased since 2011,” RTD CEO David Genova wrote in a letter to CU.

“This is a significant increase to students,” Deborah Méndez Wilson said. “We‘re concerned about affordability.”

Other Boulder leaders were more emphatic in their opposition. Mayor Suzanne Jones, during a Tuesday night city council meeting, said the changes could “probably end the CU pass (program) as we know it. And then everybody at CU will need to drive.”

She also spoke out against proposed changes to the EcoPass program, saying “it may become unaffordable to have EcoPasses.”

Exactly what the changes could be is hard to suss out, said city spokesperson Meghan Wilson, because EcoPass programs work differently in different areas. But one example is downtown Boulder: Parking revenues pay for EcoPasses for almost 7,000 full-time employees.

That costs the city about $1 million today; it‘s possible that could more than double to $2.3 million by 2021, according to Meghan Wilson. CU also said its annual EcoPass costs for 9,000 employees could nearly double, from $1.2 million to $2.38 million, in the next three years.

There also are businesses that voluntarily buy EcoPasses for their employees. Boulder officials worry that will stop if it becomes too pricey. Individuals might not be able to afford their own EcoPasses and could stop using transit altogether, reducing ridership and, ironically, reducing RTD revenue.

“One of the primary reasons (downtown employees) use transit is because it‘s free to them,” Meghan Wilson said. “The city‘s concern is that part of financial analysis hasn‘t been taken into account by RTD.”

The RTD board is set to vote on the proposals next week. Boulder and CU have both asked for more time, and for more factors to be considered.

Also coming down the line are changes to service throughout Boulder County, including reduced frequency of the SKIP line and the elimination of mid-day trips between Boulder and Lyons. Other routes, including some between Denver and Boulder, are increasing frequency, or being extended, such as a plan to add stops at the Kestrel Housing complex in Louisville.

Reed said the reductions were based on ridership. The mid-day trips to Lyons on the chopping block frequently has fewer than five riders, he said.

“It‘s difficult to justify continuing that amount of service with that low of ridership when we have some areas of the district, including Boulder, that have unmet needs. It‘s a balancing act. It‘s not always popular. We understand that.”

In a letter to RTD, Boulder transportation director Michael Garnder-Sweeney argued that the cuts were inappropriate since Boulder County pays for 100 percent of the costs of the Lyons route. He also argued against proposed discontinuation of service on the LD routes from Longmont to Denver, which RTD said is due to low ridership.

“While these trips do have relatively low ridership compared to other routes,” Garnder-Sweeney wrote, “these trips serve important regional transportation service connections and access to jobs and public services.”

The service changes still have to go through the public feedback process, Reed said, which begins Sept. 24 and lasts through October before going back to the RTD board for a vote.