To improve air quality, Colorado Democrats are set to fund a free public transit program. RTD’s past suggests it won’t help much

The air in Denver was filthy. Vehicles were one of the main contributors. And Colorado politicians thought they had a solution: entice drivers to ditch their cars with free rides on Denver’s metro transit.

“A lot of people are talking about air pollution these days. It’s nice to be able to report that the Regional Transportation District and those of us at the State Capitol are actually able to do something about it. this subject.”

This quote, from the Governor at the time. Dick Lamm, comes from March 1978. But it resonates today. Heads of state are once again set to temporarily make public transport fares free. A Democrat-sponsored bill nears final passage would provide $28 million to help make public transit free during the state’s smoggy summer months over the next two years.

“It’s a bill to help us clean the air,” State Senator Faith WinterD-Westminster, said ahead of a Senate vote in April.

An RTD spokeswoman said the agency plans to scrap the tariffs in August 2022.

But opponents don’t believe the temporary free fares will shift enough drivers to public transit to improve air quality. And one report commissioned by the federal government on RTD’s 1978-79 experience, as well as more recent research from around the worldsupports this skepticism.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
The air quality in Denver is obviously not great on August 20, 2018.

Traffic increased, but not enough

In January 1978, a banking executive told attendees of a growth seminar that free public transit would help reduce the “heavy brown funk” that plagued Denver.

RTD eliminated tariffs a few weeks later. Early press reports were positive, citing commuters who were happy to save money on gas.

The federal report on the results of the experiment showed that the free fares resulted in a significant increase in ridership over the 12-month program. But he also found that only about 12,000 bus trips a day were made by former automobile drivers or passengers, equating to a decrease in driving so small it was indistinguishable from day-to-day variations. typical driving habits caused by factors such as weather.

“In general, a free transit program by itself does not appear to be a very effective strategy for improving the environmental quality of urban areas,” the report concludes.

Public transit accounted for less than 3% of all trips in the region in the late 1970s, the report notes, so even a doubling of ridership could only slightly reduce car travel and pollution.

Federal, state and local governments had boosted car travel for decades by this point by subsidizing sprawling suburbs, large parking lots and massive freeways that made car travel almost necessary for most. from Denver “brown cloud” only improved after the federal government raised vehicle pollution standards.

The new bill won’t be a “panacea” for air quality, but it will have other benefits.

Cars are much cleaner than they were in the 1970s, but their emissions are still an environmental and health issue. Vehicles are a major contributor to summertime ozone concentrations which have reached record highs in recent years and led the US Environmental Protection Agency to declare the Front Range a “serious” environmental violator. air quality.

“I don’t think we’re in a position to claim that it’s going to be a panacea,” said the bill’s sponsor, State Representative Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver. “But…we have to try as many things as possible because what’s going on here [with ozone] is so dangerous to our health.

Bacon said the free fares will have other benefits, such as increased access to opportunities for Coloradans without a personal vehicle.

A survey of low-income drivers found that they preferred buses and trains to run more frequently and to more places than cheaper fares. But it’s unclear where RTD could get the revenue needed to dramatically increase the service. A 2021 state law that will raise billions of dollars for transportation does not provide any new funding dedicated to RTD.

Photo courtesy of Department of Western History, Denver Public Library/Rocky Mountain News Collection
A crowded RTD bus on Colfax Avenue in Denver in 1978

The experience of free transport has made the task more difficult for drivers. RTD does not want to repeat that this time.

“Free Bus Rides Plus Kids: Chaos,” read a Denver Post article from June 1978 that detailed “ruckus and rowdiness” and more serious issues. According to the federal report, vandalism, drunkenness, and assaults on passengers and drivers have all increased significantly due to free fares.

Sally Frederick, who started driving RTD buses in 1978, said a passenger threatened to break his arm when she told him he had to pay the rush hour fare.

“I think everyone thought that was a big mistake,” Frederick said of the free fares. “At least the drivers did.”

Safety and security are top concerns for union leaders and RTD chiefs, whose struggles to hire and retain more drivers and attract passengers are limit the service they can offer. Drug use and other “unwanted activities” at Union Station and in the RTD system as a whole are seen as major obstacles to the achievement of these objectives.

“I believe in the program,” RTD Managing Director and CEO Debra Johnson said of the freebie bill during a meeting of the RTD Board of Directors in April. “But I also have an obligation to ensure that our employees have a safe working environment.”

It is unclear whether state money could be used for security spending. And even if it is allowed, said RTD spokeswoman Pauline Haberman, the agency still struggles to hire security personnel.

RTD vehicles became “mobile shelters” early in the pandemic when the agency temporarily suspended fare collection, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001 President Lance Longenbohn said. That dynamic persisted on some routes, he said.

“Yes [commuters] get off and watch a bus full of people smoking fentanyl, which unfortunately happens… they won’t come back,” he said.

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