February 9, 2014
By Monte Whaley
Originally posted in The Denver Post
Many of the Denver area’s poor and unemployed don’t have much of a friend in the Regional Transportation District, according to an assessment by a national advocacy group for working women.
Bus and commuter-rail fares are too high for most low-income residents, according to “Left at the station,” a report by the local chapter of 9to5 that is based on a year-long survey of people in neighborhoods along the new W Rail Line.
The W line opened in April, part of the $7.8 billion FasTracks transit program approved by voters in 2004. It runs from downtown Denver through west Denver and Lakewood and ends at the Federal Center in Golden.
Service cutbacks make it tough for people to get to jobs, grocery stores and doctor appointments, the report says, and RTD has failed to communicate with poor people and minorities about those changes.
RTD also must do a better job making sure transit-oriented development doesn’t gentrify neighborhoods to the point that affordable housing disappears, 9to5 says.
“There is a sense of distrust toward RTD,” 9to5 transit organizer Zoe Williams said. “Low-income communities and communities of color pay for the transit system. Their neighborhoods face major changes with build-out. The bus routes they rely on get cut out. They can’t afford to ride light rail, and it doesn’t go to places they need to travel.
“All of these things,” she said, “make community members question whether or not the transit system really exists for them.”
But RTD says the scalding report issued last month is flawed because it focused only on the west side and failed to acknowledge programs designed to help the working poor access the metro transit system.
“And the methodology is pretty questionable,” said RTD spokesman Scott Reed. “The question they ask: ‘Would you like to pay less for fares?’ is not unbiased, nor is it statistically accurate.”
For 25 years, RTD has offered a discount-fare program to low-income, disabled and senior riders through 225 nonprofit agencies and churches in the metro area, Reed said.
“The reduced-fare program offers a huge opportunity for low-income riders to pay anywhere from nothing to a substantially reduced fare,” he said.
Reed said that 9to5 participated in the RTD’s discount fare program for non-profit agencies before dropping out 2011, but did not include that fact in its report.
Williams said 9to5 is not a direct-service organization and does not have clients. “It is not a viable option for us to use our budget to purchase passes for members,” Williams said.
She added that free passes and fares are still hiding a larger problem of affordability for low-income residents. “There needs to be a permanent solution in the RTD system to make affordable passes accessible to everyone,” she said.
9to5 spent a year surveying people, collecting opinions from 315 people near the Knox, Perry, Lamar and Wadsworth station areas, and 221 from the Westwood neighborhood. 9to5 also talked to nearly 400 residents and did follow-up phone calls and held two community meetings.
Sixty-six percent of the survey respondents identified as women, and 33 percent identified as men.
A majority, 58 percent, reported an annual household income under $20,000. About 29 percent were employed 32 to 40 hours a week, and 18.7 percent were employed half time.
About 72 percent said they could not afford the $79 for a monthly local bus pass or the $140 express fare, according to the study.
Low-income riders said they typically pay per ride, $2.25 for one-way local fare.This means a solo traveler taking two local bus trips 20 days per month spends $90 on fares, the study said.
Light-rail fares are also out of reach for many, the report said, because of a zoned fare system. While a rider can travel in one direction through three zones by bus for $2.25, it would cost $4 to $5 to travel the same distance by light rail.
“After a year of doing this work, the one thing that came out loud and clear was that transit is not affordable,” Williams said. “Before we can talk about last-mile connections, station safety, service changes, or light rail, we have to make sure that people can get the fares and passes they need to make the transit system relevant.”
Christine Blair, 55 and disabled, lives on about $934 a month in Wheat Ridge. After rent, food and doctor bills, Blair is left with about $61 to live on.
She scrounges for daily bus fare when she needs to travel to get groceries and medical care. “I don’t understand why RTD can’t set up fares based on your income,” Blair said. “The government does everything else based on income, why can’t RTD?”
Starting this year, RTD is looking to re-evaluate its complicated fare system, which includes rethinking how much to charge low-income riders, Reed said.
RTD’s fares are set based partly on what comparable transit agencies are charging. The local bus fare has not been changed since January 2011 and is only slightly higher than the $2.20 average among 16 transit agencies. Local fares are $2.50 in Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Portland, Pittsburgh and Dallas.
RTD officials point out that in two recent surveys, light-rail riders systemwide found fares and service largely agreeable. In fact, a 2011 survey said those who depend on light rail rated it at a 4.24 on a scale where 5 was the best.
The report says the introduction of the W Line resulted in bus-service cuts. Most information about the cuts was only produced in English and could only be found on buses or in stations.
Many of those bus routes reduced or curtailed were reinstated fully or were modified after riders protested, RTD’s manager for service and scheduling Jesse Carter said.
“That was all part of the process RTD sets up to re-evaluate our decisions on service,” Carter said.