RTD moves forward on cuts to bus, rail service starting in May
Regional Transportation District leaders on Tuesday took a step closer to cutting bus and train service as part of an effort to address a nagging driver shortage the transit agency has been grappling with for several years, leading to canceled runs and exasperated riders.
Most RTD directors made it clear that reducing service was not something they wanted to pursue but acknowledged that something must be done to deal with a labor deficit on bus routes of 115 drivers and a shortfall on the rail side of 63 operators.
The labor shortage has forced many drivers to work on days off, leading to overworked employees and high turnover at the sprawling transit agency.
“Tough times call for difficult decisions,” said Director Troy Whitmore, who was a yes vote in Tuesday’s 12-3 tally. “We all have to work diligently to keep these service reductions as temporary as possible.”
The service changes discussed by the board Tuesday — which would knock out two bus lines, make cuts to more than a dozen other bus routes and impact the frequency of service on the D-Line to Littleton and the R-Line through Aurora — will need a final vote on March 24 before becoming official.
The adjustments would go into effect on May 17.
“This is the best out of a series of ugly alternatives,” Director Doug Tisdale said grimly.
Tisdale said he would “scrupulously” examine how effective the changes are in aligning service levels with personnel numbers at RTD with an eye to having runs and routes restored as quickly as possible in the future.
The proposal approved Tuesday is less severe than what had been pitched by RTD staff at the end of 2019. That plan had called for the elimination of six bus routes and cuts to 19 others. Some of those reductions were restored — like the 99L and 16L on the west side of town, the 157 in Aurora and the 403 through Highlands Ranch — as part of an amended proposal unveiled last week.
The new list of cuts will save RTD the need to fill 43 operator shifts a day as opposed to the 62 daily operator shifts that would have been done away with under the deeper cuts proposed in December. RTD’s chief operating officer, Michael Ford, warned the board Tuesday that the service cuts are not a “cure-all” for the agency’s labor woes.
“This reduction will help us with some stabilization,” he said.
He said more effective retention strategies that speak directly to the life/work balance issues plaguing the agency will have to be further developed to keep RTD employees from leaving the organization. He said 58 rail operators are being trained currently.
Director Natalie Menten expressed concern Tuesday that RTD isn’t going far enough with service reductions, especially after they were modified last week following two weeks of public meetings during which passengers spoke out against the elimination of certain bus lines.
She said she didn’t want the board to be back again in a matter of months, making further cuts.
“Instead of taking three steps forward, we’re taking one step forward and I’m afraid it’s not enough,” she said.
The R-Line, which is slated for a reduction in frequency from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, got a lot of attention Tuesday after Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman went public with objections to any changes to the light-rail line. Almost every RTD director said they had had conversations with the mayor of Colorado’s third-largest city over the last couple of weeks.
Some directors pushed back, noting that ridership on the R-Line is underperforming — with fewer than 50 boardings per hour — and that Aurora residents need to step up and get aboard if they want RTD to continue giving the line full backing.
“You better be coming to the table,” said Director Judy Lubow during an afternoon meeting ahead of the formal board hearing Tuesday night. “The obligations are joint here.”
Director Kate Williams said Aurora needs to do outreach with its residents if it wants its train to regain high-frequency service in the future.
“We’re not in the business of moving train cars — we’re in the business of moving people,” she said.