On Friday, RTD will make history when gleaming, new commuter train cars roll in to Union Station as the transit agency opens the A Line running to the airport. There will be speeches from politicians, bands playing at parties at train stations along the line and free rides for commuters who’ll use the new train.
That feeling of euphoria, though, may not be shared by the thousands of RTD riders who depend primarily on local bus service to get to work, go to medical appointments and do their shopping. For these riders, using transit is their only option. Unfortunately, the price of using transit is frequently overwhelming for them, and the new fare structure RTD approved in January does nothing to make it more affordable for low-income, transit-dependent riders.
The Colorado Fiscal Institute studied RTD’s fare structure for a year to examine how affordable it was and evaluated the newly approved fare structure through the same lens. In addition to evaluating the old and new fare structures. CFI also looked for alternatives that RTD could use to make fares more affordable for low-income riders and how this could be paid for. The result is “Ticket to Thrive: A solution for affordable transit in the Denver region,” a comprehensive study of transit affordability in the eight-county transit district RTD serves.
“What our research showed is that things don’t have to be this way,” said Chris Stiffler, CFI economist. “There are viable options for making fares more affordable to low-income residents who rely on public transit, and other communities around the country have willingly embraced such solutions as necessary and beneficial to their populations as a whole.
“RTD in so many ways is a forward-looking transit agency. There’s no reason why it can’t also be a leader in making transit more affordable for low-income riders.”
CFI’s report identifies a number of ways RTD’s financing structure makes transit costs overwhelming for transit-dependent riders, including:
• The 1 percent sales tax to support RTD falls more heavily on the poor, who spend a greater portion (three times as much as higher-income riders) of their earnings on goods subject to sales tax and thus pay a larger percentage of their earnings in sales tax.
• One-day parking at RTD Park-n-Ride facilities is free, benefiting higher-income suburban commuters, who use Park-n-Rides, over low-income users, who don’t use the parking.
• Higher-income riders are more likely to take advantage of significant discounts offered through purchasing in bulk, such as monthly and yearly passes, and their employers are more likely to offer free or discount passes through the Eco Pass system, which allows employers to bulk purchase passes at a discount. Low-income riders seldom can take advantage of these bulk discounts.
The newly approved fare structure does not take into account any of these inequities and attempt to alleviate them. Meanwhile, an existing program where RTD sells passes to nonprofits at a discount (who then distribute them to low-income riders) reaches relatively few riders (less than one-fifth of low-income users’ trips).
Our study also identifies some ways RTD could make fares affordable, including our recommended option, a “50/150” program that would provide a 50 percent discount off regular fares for riders who earn less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level. This idea is similar to a program that is now used in the Seattle area, and it would be comparable to programs RTD already uses that provide discounts for seniors, Medicare recipients and the disabled.
CFI hopes this study will inform discussion going forward about how RTD’s fare structure should be revised and what role the agency should play in making transit affordable.
Click below to read “Ticket to Thrive.”