RTD and Advocates For Workers Clash Over Transit Costs
By Dave Felice
The Regional Transportation District and an organization representing working women differ sharply on transportation fares, and neither side appears ready to change its position any time soon.
Citing a year-long study issued on April 16 by the Colorado Fiscal Institute, the group 9to5 Colorado contends the issue is really about getting recognition that low-wage workers pay a higher percentage of income toward public transportation than all other income levels.
RTD officials maintain that fares are currently as low as possible to sustain operations. The assistant general manager for communications said fares have been structured to benefit all members of the community.
The issue was highlighted during the formal opening of RTD’s A-Train to the airport train in April. There, members of 9to5 Colorado, which advocates for fair pay and equal treatment for women, disrupted a speech by RTD General Manager Dave Genova by calling out for affordable fares.
“Mostly poor and working class women of color are literally left at the station because they are not able to afford fares and passes,” 9to5 organizers subsequently noted. “People are being forced to choose between filling a prescription or buying bus fare to get to work.”
Chris Stiffler, an economist with the Colorado Fiscal Institute, told Greater Park Hill News that low-wage workers in Denver are “feeling the squeeze from both ends.”
“They have seen their real term wages actually fall in the last decade while costs of housing, healthcare, and transportation have continued to explode,” he said.
Stiffler and Economic Policy Analyst Thamanna Vasan authored the Colorado Fiscal Institute Study.
“We know from existing research that not having access to transportation can have real consequences for workers, especially those who are transit-dependent,” Vasan said. “It is difficult to find and keep a job if you don’t have a reliable and affordable way to get to work.”
In addition, Vasan maintains workers shouldn’t have to choose between health care and transportation.
“An economy is only as healthy as its workers and families,” she said. “In cities like Denver, transit is important in getting people to the health care they need. You should be able to go to work and go to a doctor. When fares rise, it becomes harder to make both trips. Unfortunately, when this is a choice and there isn’t affordable transit, many will forego the care they need.”
Scott Reed of RTD disagrees with the assertions about affordability.
“Current fares are the result of a two-year restructuring by RTD, with input from the community at large,” he said. “Reducing fares would result in service cuts, which would have the most negative impact on transit riders.”
Reed says the A-Train’s $9 round trip airport fare is the result of requests from community interest groups, and is specifically aimed at helping airport workers.
“We object to the methodology (of the CFI study),” he said. “We don’t have any fare change scheduled for another two years, but we are always open to suggestions.”
Economist Stiffler noted that the report’s recommendations included “making the airport fare more expensive, (and) use the extra revenue to pay for the 50/150 program which would give the same 50 percent discount to low income users that RTD offers to seniors, disabled, and students.”
“Riders who benefit most from the $9 fare reduction are more likely to be upper income users,” Stiffler said. “Charging $10 or $11 for the train, then turning around and allowing low wage workers the ability to buy a half-off fare would be a game changer.”
The CFI study notes that current full bus fare of $2.60 represents 31.3 percent of the hourly minimum wage of $8.36.
Larry Ambrose, immediate past president of Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, a consortium of registered neighborhood organizations in Denver, highlighted additional problems with the fee structure of public transit.
“There’s a greater need for affordability, especially for the low-wage workers, the disadvantaged, and those who are homeless,” Ambrose said. “This is especially difficult for the homeless because services are decentralized. People who can’t afford the fare, can’t get anywhere for services, and so homeless people tend to congregate in the same areas.”
“The entire system is broken, by lack of fare equity and lack of functionality,” he said.