RTD slashing service amid COVID-19 outbreak

Ridership down 70% during pandemic as people lose jobs or work from home


The Regional Transportation District is cutting service by 40% in response to plummeting demand amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stay-at-home orders issued March 26 have forced nonessential businesses to close through April 30. Most people who can work remotely are at home, but many essential workers still rely on RTD for travel.

“We're still providing an essential service to people, just obviously a lot of people don't need the service right now because so many people are being asked to stay at home and work at home,” said Marta Sipeki, spokesperson for RTD. “That will mean maintaining the level of service for people who are riding the bus and train currently.”

RTD saw a 70% decrease in ridership resulting from the spread of COVID-19, according to a March 24 news release, as well as an 85% drop in fare revenue and reduced overall sales tax revenue. The massive dip in demand led the district to make drastic cuts to its service a month sooner than RTD's typical service change period.

The RTD Board of Directors approved a proposal to reduce service of its bus and light rail to its weekend hours beginning April 19.

Some buses will still run seven days a week but on a Saturday schedule, meaning they will operate the same hours they would on a Saturday. The Saturday schedule makes less frequent stops to certain places and generally makes fewer loops to the suburbs and downtown Denver. A few bus lines will not have service altered at all. Many lines with low ridership will discontinue during the pandemic. The light rail schedule has been altered to a Sunday hours schedule, which also makes less frequent stops. The changes will remain in effect until Sept. 20. For a detailed schedule, visit RTD-Denver.com/service-changes/COVID-19-service-plan.

The April 19 service change will the COVID-19 package, as RTD refers to it, and the service change proposals originally slated to take effect May 17 prior to the outbreak.

“The current decrease in RTD ridership is unrivaled in the agency's history, and by taking this action, we exercise responsibility and care for our employees and our customers,” RTD Interim General Manager and CEO Paul Ballard stated in the release. “This also allows us to continue to serve those who rely on us, including health care and food service workers and others who are critical to fighting this crisis, while also giving us flexibility to restore service as ridership returns.”

Facing a bus driver and light rail operator shortage at the start of this year, RTD reports it has enough drivers to fulfill its new service needs. RTD stated it intends to retain all its bus drivers and light rail operators through the crisis, putting them to work in other areas if needed.

“Once everything subsides and things start going back to normal and ridership increases, we need our workforce to ramp up,” said Sipeki. “We've been working really hard to hire more operators and we just want to make sure that when service comes back we have those operators.”

Drivers without a designated route are on standby to fill different needs throughout the district. Bus and rail operators on standby are also being put to work in various other jobs in the district as well.

Bus drivers are to limit the number of people who can board a bus based on six-foot social distancing guidelines recommended by health experts. If a bus reaches the new capacity at a stop, the driver will request another RTD bus to immediately come to pick up the remaining passengers.

Certain rows of seating on RTD buses are roped off to encourage social distancing. Sipeki said with fewer people per bus and light rail car, people have been minding social distancing without any need for enforcement. If needed, RTD can add cars to certain light rail lines to carry more passengers safely.

RTD's shuttle service for physically limited people, Access-a-Ride, is offering grocery delivery service to Access-a-Ride customers for free. Senior Manager of Paratransit Services Paul Hamilton stated in a March 30 news release that the district is aware food is one of the first things people can lose access to during the pandemic.

“When the public is being told to reduce their exposure to others, the last thing we want to do is ask them to leave their homes if they don't have to,” Hamilton said.

Grocery pickup is available at King Soopers, Safeway, Community Ministry Southwest food bank, Senior Hub Senior Solutions and Adams County Food Bank. Additional locations will be announced on RTD's website, RTD-Denver.com. Vendors interested in participating should call RTD at 303-299-6000. For more information, visit RTD-Denver.com/services/access-a-ride.

RTD announced April 2 it expects to receive $232 million through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act signed by President Trump on March 27. The funds can be used for any operations costs associated with COVID-19, including salaries and expenses related to protective equipment and cleaning supplies, according to the release. The funds can be used for expenditures from Jan. 1, 2020, forward and are to be used as soon as possible. The funds will be reimbursed once they are spent.

Looking down the road, it is difficult to say what RTD service will look like after the initial stay-at-home order. Concerts will happen again, and the Denver Broncos begin preseason games in August, two events that tend to draw large crowds taking light rail and bus services. The new service changes will take effect through most of September.

“It will all depend on what the situation is at the time,” Sipeki said. “It also goes back to how people are feeling about going to a game … there's just so many unknowns right now. I just hope things get back to normal soon.”


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