The right to ride

Denver metro bus riders face a price hike January 1, and activists, who have been working to keep RTD from jacking up prices since 2013, are making concerted efforts to keep public transit affordable to those most in need.

Bus riders will see an increase from $2.25 to $2.60 for a single one-way ride. Of course, there’s always the day pass option, which will be lowered from the current cost of 6.75 to $5.20 and will allow riders to use the bus system for unlimited trips throughout  the day. As one RTD phone operator puts it, $5.20 for a full day is a good deal.

But for some low-income families, a five dollar ticket to and from work, errands and a crash pad could break the bank. Scraping together a more “economical” $99 local monthly pass, when they are scraping by the skin of their teeth just to survive, isn’t realistic.

Case in point: Julie Bennett and her five month pregnant daughter are transitioning from spending the past two years in a women’s shelter to living in an apartment of their own. While Bennett has a new job, her income pushes her just above the poverty line and also disqualifies her from receiving food assistance.

Times are tight, Bennett explains, especially with the grandchild coming. She stresses that the two women will not be able to afford two bus passes, let alone one. “I just started my job, and it would be helpful to get the income-based bus passes while I’m just getting started.”

“Not everything is in walking distance,” Bennett explains. “The current and increasing prices make it quite difficult for us. It’s not just getting to and from work, but it’s also getting to the store, to church.  It’s going to cost $5.20 for both of us one way.”

9to5 Colorado, a nonprofit that works to involve women in economic justice, is hosting a protest, teach-in and rally today with the Montbello Organizing Committee, Jobs for Justice, FRESH, Community Enterprises, Rights for all People and ADAPT, the Denver-based disability rights organization that successfully pushed for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We’re basically going to talk about why this is so important and educate attendees about how RTD is a public service,” said Andrea Chiriboga-Flor of 9to5 Colorado.

The groups will continue to propose an alternative pricing plan for RTD that would allow families eligible for public assistance to pay the same rates as students and the elderly—$1.30 for local one-way fares and $49 for a monthly pass.

Currently, discounted passes are not available for 68 percent of low-income riders. Clients from nonprofits and shelters such as The Gathering Place, which spends half of its funding paying for public transportation fares, often find that their bus passes run out before the end of the month. This means that people who cannot afford to ride the bus are left to walk to and from their destinations, sometimes in excess of 20 miles, explains Chiriboga-Flor.

9to5 Colorado has been fighting for affordable transit since 2013. Their groundbreaking report Left at the Station: A Civil Rights Perspective on Transit Justice in the Front Range compiled information from canvassing and was presented in 2014. Data from the report showed that cost is the biggest barrier to mass transit.

Since the publication of the report, 9to5 advocates have been attending every public board meeting, bringing along people who have been affected by high bus fares. “These testimonies show why RTD needs to provide an income-based pass,” explains Chiriboga-Flor.

“What we want is very similar to what Seattle has,” says Chiriboga-Flor. Seattle has a system that gives a 50 percent discount to bus riders who are within 200 percent of the poverty level. The activists’ proposed RTD low-income program would give a 50 percent discount to participants who qualify for welfare.

The activists want more than just affordable transit. They want to make sure people across the metro area have access to bus routes.

“We are also taking action because of bus cuts that are proposed to take place in Montebello,” said Chiriboga-Flor. Already, 9to5 has pressured RTD to reinstate some bus routes in the area.

Across the metro area, RTD is cutting back on bus routes where light rail stations are being built. Some of those routes are ending before light rail stations open, however, leaving riders living in already underserved communities stranded.

“If RTD doesn’t budge, we are just going to have to keep escalating,” stated Chiriboga-Flor.

The teach-in begins at 4:00 p.m. at the Tivoli, on Auraria Campus, in the Baerresen Ballroom, 900. Then the protest begins.