Whether people can afford bus and light rail fares is one of the most fundamental issues to whether a transit system really serves its public. If I were being really honest (and I am), I would share that it took Mile High Connects a couple of years to understand this really basic issue. We started our collaborative with great ideas about getting more affordable housing near transit, connecting local workers to jobs in transit areas and making sure that services like health and education were easy to get to through light rail. And then, after hundreds of conversations with community members, we finally got it – if people can’t afford to even get on the bus or the light rail, it doesn’t matter if that health clinic is located near a transit stop or that they live in housing right next to a station.
At the beginning of 2014, we began exploring what it would look like to work more intentionally on affordability of bus and light rail fares. RTD was getting ready to undertake a study of its fare structure, fare cost and pass programs, so it seemed like a great time to begin to work with them on how we could address the challenge of affordability.
Our effort began small – 10 organizations around a table describing the ways that affordability of fares impacted their constituents. Over the course of the year, as that group became 40, then 70, then 120 with participants from every sector – nonprofit, business, government, philanthropy – we realized just how hungry people were to talk about something they see every day in a meaningful, solution-oriented way.
Throughout the year, we worked closely with staff at RTD, co-hosting three targeted focus groups for nonprofits, participating their Local Government Stakeholders convenings, attending all eleven of the public input sessions on the Fare Study and meeting whenever possible with staff on the issue. We applauded RTD for opening up the process to public input, came to them with specific ideas we were working on to get at the affordability question and encouraged them to work with our growing coalition even more deeply to delve into solutions in a way that was generative, creative and helped to address community need.
Because of this, I have to admit that I was surprised at last week’s update to the RTD Board Operations and Customer Service Committee on the Fare Study. A board member asked specifically whether any ideas had been generated by those in the community interested in affordability and staff responded “no”. Staff also shared that the opportunity for feedback would be limited to a formal public hearing model for the next phase of the study.
In reality, there are any number of very specific ideas being explored, tested, talked through and pondered. Ranging from ways that you could make an income-based pass and fare system work to changes to the Business and Neighborhood EcoPass Programs to enhancements to the Nonprofit Agency Reduced Fare Program, a large group of interested and informed stakeholders from every sector are thoughtfully working to figure out how to tackle this complex, critical issue. We continue to invite RTD staff to engage with us, to think with us, to explore with us and to continue on the path they were walking down throughout the course of last year to meaningfully engage community in their process. Productive dialogue is important for the best solutions to emerge. We encourage and look forward to continued, deepening and expanding opportunities for partnership for the benefit of the community at large.