Report: Denver transit challenged by declining ridership, rising costs and crime



(The Center Square) – Declines in riders, increases in budgets and spikes in crime are challenging Denver’s Regional Transit District, according to an analysis by a nonprofit research organization.

“Fork in the Railroad: RTD’s Ridership Dilemma,” was published by the conservative Common Sense Institute days after Democrat Gov. Jared Polis signed into a law a per-barrel fee on oil and natural gas to raise approximately $285 million to pay for transit expansion.

“A review of key metrics demonstrates, at a minimum, that RTD is struggling to meet the needs of the Denver metropolitan area it was created to serve,” the report, written by Kelly Brough, an urban development fellow at the organization, DJ Summers, the organization’s director of policy and research, and Erik Gamm, a senior research analyst.

The report stated ridership decreased 46% and the operating budget increased 3% between 2019 and 2022. The system’s operating budget increased from $477 million in 2014 to $856 million in 2023 and its proposed budget for 2024 is $1 billion. Only 4.4% of the district’s operating costs were covered by fares as of Jan. 31, 2024, according to the report.

From 2020 through 2022, the cost of the transit system amounted to $275 per Denver metro area resident, according to the report. During that three-year period, 66% of the system’s revenue came from sales and use taxes in participating counties. Federal grants provide approximately 25% of its operating costs.

“The bottom line is ridership is not keeping pace with the growing budget,” Summers said in a statement announcing the publication. “RTD would have to nearly triple its ridership in order to recover 30% of its operating costs through rider fares, as it was officially required to do until 2021.”

In 2022, the Colorado General Assembly eliminated a standard requiring higher fare recovery ratios.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s crime statistics show public transit-adjacent crime increased the last five years, but the district’s police data shows monthly crime falling during the last several years, according to the report.

“Safety and the perception of safety are crucial to public transit ridership, but tracking RTD-related crime is murky,” according to the report. “RTD police have acknowledged an uptick in crime in line with the same general uptick in crime experienced by the Denver metro area in the early 2020s. However, there is a lack of data, a lack of coordination among data sources, and an issue of jurisdiction that confounds the existing data.”

The report noted only 78 miles of a 119-mile expansion of rail to Longmont and Boulder—at a cost of $72 million per mile—have been completed.

The analysis also reviewed the district’s performance with 23 U.S. public transportation systems with bus, light rail and heavy rail. In 2022, Denver ranked:

-17th in overall spending;

-15th in unlinked trips;

-10th in operational expense per trip;

-19th in use rate per capita;

-17th in number of miles transported and

-17th in spending per mile of rider travel.

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