RTD faces drug, safety problems as it launches free-fare promotion

This weekend’s launch of an expanded two-month summer promotion offering free fares on the Regional Transportation District’s buses and trains comes as the agency still struggles with problems and open drug use on its system.

Several train and bus operators underlined that challenge when they confronted RTD’s elected board Tuesday night with stories of repeated fentanyl exposure, attacks by unruly riders and messes left behind — including, one light-rail operator said, soiled underwear and a cup of urine.

They spoke up alongside frustrated riders and community advocates. Most supported an expanded code of conduct and suspension policy that RTD leaders later approved in hopes they would help address more of the safety problems.

But without greater enforcement, several speakers said, those policies likely won’t do much — and at least one bus driver suggested the problems could harm efforts to attract new riders during the state-supported Zero Fare for Better Air initiative that begins Saturday.

“It has become truly embarrassing, tedious and unsafe for legit, paying customers — all of which have asked why the rights of these non-paying, homeless drug users, (who are) actively committing crimes daily, trump the rights of the legit paying public,” said Mandy Kaiser, a light-rail operator for nearly five years. “These are the very reasons employee retention and ridership are so low.”

Illegal drug use has been especially visible — and has fouled the air — on light-rail trains and platforms in west and south metro Denver, mirroring the skyrocketing use of fentanyl and other drugs in wider society in recent years.

Unlike on RTD’s commuter-rail lines, such as the A and G lines, light-rail trains aren’t required to have conductors or security backup on board, making them — and some bus routes — magnets for people to use drugs. RTD’s small but growing police department has stepped up targeted enforcement in the last year.

James Flattum, a co-founder of the Greater Denver Transit advocacy group, noted that many of the incidents highlighted by Kaiser and others were already barred by RTD’s existing rules or by criminal laws. He pointed to the need for regional support from other local governments to help resource-strained RTD.

Other speakers Tuesday night included representatives of the African Community Center of Denver, which said experiences on RTD services lately by the refugees they help resettle have been jarring — and sometimes traumatic — for their clients. Some scrimp and save just to buy a car so they can avoid riding the bus.

All RTD services are free during July and August

Security still will be spread thin as RTD kicks off its second zero-fare promotion. All of its regular train lines and bus routes will be free during July and August, as will its Access-a-Ride and FlexRide on-demand options.

The pessimism expressed Tuesday night contrasted with a celebratory Zero Fare launch last week at Union Station, which drew Gov. Jared Polis and other state and regional leaders. It was brought to a close by Debra Johnson, RTD’s general manager and CEO, who proclaimed: “Goodbye, fares. See you in September!”

Because of increased state support to offset costs, including the loss of a projected $15 million in fare revenue, RTD opted to double the duration of the promotion’s first outing last summer. Some of the other participating transit agencies around the state extended their promotions this year, too.

Last year’s fare-free August resulted in a 22% increase in ridership over July, according to RTD data, with buses seeing a larger uptick than trains.

“It turns out that people appreciate the opportunity to ride for free — and once they do, they see the convenience of being able to utilize transit to get where they want to go,” Polis said. “Public transit is a key part of the overall strategy to reduce emissions, and I’m confident that this year’s July and August Zero Fare for Better Air program will lead to even bigger increases in ridership across the RTD region.”

RTD’s evaluation of last year’s promotion found no major increases in crime or security incidents, and it eliminated fare-payment conflicts.

But some operators, including one Tuesday night, reported an increase in riders who were experiencing homelessness, noting it turned off some other riders.

Still, drug use and other security problems were prevalent before last year’s free-fare period, too. RTD leaders have expressed optimism about this year’s initiative and said they’re working to improve the transit environment for riders.

RTD beefs up suspensions policy

Tuesday night’s board approvals of changes to RTD’s code of conduct — rebranded as “Respect the Ride” — and a beefed-up suspensions policy were aimed at giving police officers and security personnel more tools to crack down on people who are on RTD property but not using its services. Other changes include prohibitions on harassing behavior and the use of profane or threatening language.

“I cannot stress enough that enforcement of the code is limited to situations where a more direct response is warranted, beyond education or resource assistance,” Johnson told the board. “Verbal or written warnings are often effective tools.”

But RTD Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald said the “stiffer” suspensions policy would help address behavior by chronic violators of the rules. They could be used to bar people from RTD property and vehicles temporarily (in most cases) or permanently (for some criminal offenses, especially against RTD employees).

RTD earlier dropped some proposed code of conduct revisions after facing an outcry by advocates for the homeless. One would have explicitly banned indefinite riding of the system after a rider’s fare has expired.

A few board members pushed for further revisions late Tuesday, mostly unsuccessfully. The rules changes ultimately won approval with one dissenting vote, by Director JoyAnn Ruscha of northeast Denver.

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