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RTD Has No Cushion


The sluggish recovery from the financial meltdown of 2007-08 doesn’t feel like a recovery at all; lots of people and institutions are still being fiscally flogged. And as institutions go, Denver’s Regional Transportation District is feeling the pain like no other. What it needs—and what would benefit us all—is a serious infusion of cash.

Based on current projections, RTD faces an $18 million shortfall in 2011 and it’s not looking much better after that. Thankfully, fuel prices haven’t gone through the roof, but regardless, it’s looking like something’s got to go. At least that’s the accepted wisdom.

RTD gets about 70 percent of its money from sales taxes and the other 30 percent from fares. When money is short at RTD, one of two things—or a combination of the two—usually happens: fares go up or service gets cut. To try and blunt this death spiral approach to the fiscal management of our transit system, RTD Board Member John Tayer from Boulder will be chairing a task force that is going to comb through the organization, looking for any efficiencies or cost-cutting measures that don’t involve cutting service or jacking up fares.

Tayer is good at this, having served as chair of the finance committee for the past several years. But apart from some loose change found among the cushions at RTD, there’s little to trim; five years of falling sales tax revenue, punctuated with a brief but painful kick in the shins by $4-a-gallon gas, have left the place cut nearly to the bone. Short of asking passengers to help with the driving, it’s not likely much of the $18 million will be made up with new found “efficiencies.”

So that leaves increasing fares and/or cutting service. Both are bad ideas, especially today. With people generally making less, if they’re working at all, a comprehensive, cheap and efficient transit system is needed now more than ever. And what isn’t said, but what needs to be done, is to raise the transit tax.

Oh NOOOO! We can’t raise taxes, not in the midst of a recession!

Wrong. We can and we must. Paying a mere dime more on a $10 purchase isn’t going to break the back of those who are out of a job or who have had to take a pay cut. What WILL break their back—and what will impact them far more—is paying an extra quarter to get to and from that lower paying job, or job interview, day after day.

And as for you Tea Partiers out there who whine about too many taxes and too much government, listen up. Ask any real estate agent in downtown Denver where the hottest properties are going to be and they’ll grab the map of the future buildout of the FasTracks system and start pointing to neighborhoods surrounding train and bus stops.

Transit-oriented development isn’t a fleeting fad like Lady Gaga. A comprehensive and cheap transit system fuels residential and commercial development. Why? Because people want to live where they can walk or ride a bike to a bus or train that takes them to work and back. Why? Because driving sucks; it’s wasteful and aggravating and expensive.

In an ideal world, our federal government would slap a 25-cent a gallon tax on gasoline tomorrow and fund transit systems nationwide, as well as an interstate high-speed rail system. If we start now, it may not hurt nearly as bad when gas goes back up to $4 a gallon or more (and it most certainly will).

In the meantime, we need to let RTD pull the cushions off the couch and be glad they found the remote. But when the handful of change they find comes up short, and it will, we need to support a bump in the sales tax, because that’s what it’s going to take to keep RTD healthy and ensure its valuable existence into the future.

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