It’s time for Colorado to get serious about funding public transit

October 3, 2023 | Matt Frommer

Coloradans want more transportation options to get where they need to go beyond the car, and that includes public transit. This growing desire for non-auto mobility choices continues to gain steam, especially among Millenials and Gen Z, who want more convenient and affordable alternatives to driving such as transit, biking, and walking.

State and local governments also want better public transit as a means to reduce climate pollution, traffic congestion, and household transportation costs while improving public health and access to opportunity. Transit has been a recurring priority in regional and state transportation goals and plans for decades. 

Despite this shared interest, public transit represents less than 3% of commute trips in Colorado today. Why isn’t transit thriving in our state? We need to address why we don’t have a more successful public transit system in Colorado.

If you follow transportation issues, you’ll quickly realize that our true policy is not found in our goals and vision statements but in our budget. When we follow the money, it becomes clear that our state is woefully underfunding public transit, especially compared to other states across the country. 

Overall, Colorado ranks 44th in the nation in state support for regional and local public transit. In the Denver metro area, in 2021, 0% of the Regional Transportation District’s (RTD) operating budget – the money used to keep buses and trains running – and 4% of its capital budget – the funding used to build infrastructure and purchase buses and trains – came from state sources. 

By comparison, the average transit agency in the United States receives 21% of its operating budget and 26% of its capital budget from state funding sources. 

What if RTD were to receive the average level of state support? In that case, it’d collect an additional $160 million per year from the state government to support its operations (a 25% increase in its operating budget) and up to $560 million per year if it were located in the most transit-supportive states like Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut (an 85% increase).

Capital and Operating funding sources for large transit agencies in the U.S. comparing Colorado to the national average. Source: National Transit Database (2021)

Unpacking the benefits of public transit

Like public parks, schools, roads, and libraries, public transit is an essential public service and a key ingredient for any high-functioning, thriving, and equitable community. When thoughtfully planned and adequately funded, public transit delivers important benefits for air quality, climate, affordability, safety, equity, and access to opportunity. 

On affordability: Public transit offers an opportunity for people to save money at a time when “cost of living” is a top concern for Colorado voters. For example, RTD’s new monthly pass is $88 while the cost to own and operate the average car is over $800 per month, and nearly $1,000 for new vehicles. If a two-car household were to sell one of their vehicles and replace those car trips with transit, they could save around $10,500 per year.

Many of us think coastal cities have the highest cost of living, but when we consider the combined housing and transportation costs as a share of income, the Denver region is actually less affordable than places like San Francisco, New York City, and Boston, in part because residents in those cities have better access to affordable transportation options like transit, biking, and walking, making car-free or car-lite living more feasible.

Source: Location Affordability Index, Median Household (Housing and Transportation Costs as a Percent of Income), 2016. United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (2019)

On equity and access to opportunity: Approximately 20 to 40% of people in any given community cannot, should not, or prefer not to drive because they’re seniors, adolescents, people with disabilities, or cannot afford it. These residents will continue to struggle to access jobs and other opportunities, as well as basic services like medical appointments, without adequate alternatives to driving. 

A more efficient and fair transportation planning framework would, at a minimum, allocate funding to non-auto transportation modes in proportion to the share of people who use those modes or would use those options if they were reasonably comparable to driving. Yet for decades, we’ve spent over 90% of the transportation infrastructure budget on car-centric projects designed to move traffic more quickly instead of people more efficiently, affordably, and sustainably. 

On climate and air quality: Public transit is also a key solution to the climate puzzle. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution in Colorado and the sector with by far the biggest deficit in meeting the state’s 2025 climate targets – a gap of more than nine million metric tons of GHG pollution. Efforts to introduce more electric vehicles (EVs) in the coming years are critical but insufficient on their own to meet our climate goals and avoid the worst impacts of global warming. To fulfill our climate targets, we must also reduce daily driving by 20% below current rates through prioritizing non-auto transportation options like transit, biking, and walking, and adopting Smart Growth practices to shorten vehicle trips. 

In 2019, RTD cut regional GHG emissions by 820,000 metric tons by replacing car trips with transit and facilitating more walkable Transit-Oriented Development around its rail stations and bus corridors. That’s the equivalent of replacing over 150,000 gas-powered cars with EVs. 

In addition to being more energy efficient, public transit is one of the most space efficient ways to move people. Just imagine how much more traffic, highway lanes, and parking lots we’d have if the 170,000 people who ride RTD’s buses and trains every day drove cars instead. 

On safety: Traveling by public transit is ten times safer per mile than traveling by automobile. This is especially relevant for Colorado since traffic fatalities have been on the rise, hitting a 40-year high in 2022. In 2019, RTD helped avoid almost 1,200 crashes in 2018 (three crashes per day) by offering an alternative to driving. 

A recipe for a useful and successful public transit system

While many factors contribute to the success of public transit, it needs a few foundational pillars to thrive: 

  1. Capital investments (infrastructure such as rail lines, trains, buses, stations, and more), 
  2. Operating funds (bus and rail service), and
  3. Population density, particularly within ¼-to-½-mile of high-frequency transit corridors (click here to read our blog about Transit-Oriented Development and climate-friendly land use).

To its credit, the Denver region has spent a lot of money on capital projects – from RTD’s $6 billion FasTracks rail expansion, which included 88 new miles of rail, to the recent commitments from the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), and the federal government to build Bus-Rapid Transit infrastructure along urban corridors like Colfax Avenue, Federal Boulevard, and State Highway 119 between Longmont and Boulder. But this transit infrastructure is only useful if we run frequent bus and rail service along the routes. 

“When it comes to public transit, frequency is freedom”Jarrett Walker

A standard metric used to judge public transit is the share of the population living within half-mile of “high-frequency transit corridors” where a bus or train comes every 15 minutes or less – often enough to give riders the freedom and flexibility to walk to the bus or train station without looking at the schedule and rest assured they’ll be picked up in short order. Today, only 20% of RTD’s 118 routes are along high-frequency corridors, a big drop from pre-pandemic levels. 

Another metric is the share of the population living within half-mile of high-frequency transit corridors, about a five-to-10-minute walk. Before the pandemic, about 22% of residents in RTD’s territory lived near high-frequency transit, but that percentage has dropped alongside service. For comparison, in a city like Toronto, where nearly two-thirds of the population lives near high-frequency transit, the transit system attracts seven times as many trips per capita. (Trains, Buses, People by Christof Spieler)

While RTD scores relatively well on geographic coverage, providing service to one of the largest transit service areas in the nation, it comes at the expense of frequency. Over 40% of RTD’s bus routes have a frequency of 60 minutes or greater. Open Google Maps, and you’ll find that many trips are expected to take two-to-three times longer on public transit than in a car. Such a disparity in the convenience of transportation options is fundamentally unfair to those who can’t drive or are spending too much of their household budget on cars. And for those who opt to drive cars to their destination, it means there will be more traffic on the road.

Source: RTD’s 2023 Service Schedule and SWEEP

Looking at the last 20 years of transit data, most of the larger transit agencies along the Front Range expanded transit service to match population growth, with the exception of Colorado Springs’ Mountain Metro Transit. Public transit then took a major hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a 50-70% loss of ridership and a corresponding decrease in farebox revenue. Since then, transit use in Colorado has slowly bounced back with the help of federal funds and Colorado’s summertime “Zero Fare for Better Air” program in 2022 and 2023 – but currently, RTD’s service still remains about 25% below 2019 levels.

Today, the Front Range Urban Corridor, which stretches from Pueblo up through Fort Collins, has 37% more people than it did 20 years ago, but only 7% more transit service.

Changes in transit service in Colorado’s urban areas along the Front Range. (Colorado has well over 50 transit agencies throughout the state, but only a handful of them report their data to the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database.)

RTD is taking steps to restore service and aims to get back to 85% of pre-pandemic levels by 2027, but that’s not going to cut it if we have any hope of meeting our climate, air quality, and equity goals. There’s no doubt the pandemic had a significant impact on travel, but within two years, total driving miles had rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. We cannot afford to allow public transit to languish for another four or five more years while the population continues to grow and residents settle into new travel habits dominated by single-occupancy vehicle trips. 

Drawing inspiration from Seattle

While the mode split across different transportation options has remained relatively steady in most American cities, Seattle has been the exception, proving that travel behavior and all the cost, benefits, and externalities that come with it are a policy choice and not some inherent and insurmountable preference for driving a single-occupancy vehicle. The state of Washington made a series of policy choices in the 1990s to reduce vehicle trips, and according to the data, it’s started to pay off. 

Transit use in the Seattle metro area is three times higher than in Denver, partly because they invest three times more in transit per capita than we do in Colorado. The result is less driving, and over the last 25 years, Washington’s annual driving per capita has dropped by 1,400 miles or 15%, while Coloradans drive about the same amount they did back in 1996. 

Other states must find ways to replicate this success in vehicle-miles-traveled reduction if we hope to meet our climate targets. 

In the four years from 2015 to 2019, Seattle’s transit funding boost increased the share of residents living near high-frequency transit from 25% to 70%. Source: Seattle Department of Transportation. (“Very frequent transit service” is defined as 10-minutes or less). 

Toward a more integrated state, regional, and local transit system

While state support for local and regional transit service in Colorado has been lackluster, CDOT has stepped up its game to expand its own intercity bus service with its new and improved Bustang system. CDOT is one year into a three-year pilot to boost transit service along state and interstate highways, and the early results are encouraging with a 46% ridership growth in just the last year

This intercity transit service would be even more successful if riders had connections to frequent and reliable local transit on either side of their Bustang ride. Imagine how many more people in Denver would use the Bustang service along I-70 and into the mountain communities or up I-25 to Fort Collins if they were able to reach Denver Union Station to catch the Bustang bus in 30 minutes or less. 

Transit funding options

Colorado has taken important steps to create a more sustainable, energy efficient, and equitable transportation system. In 2021, the Colorado legislature passed Senate Bill (SB) 260, “The Sustainability of the Transportation System.” On one hand, the bill was a major win for climate, representing one of the largest investments in vehicle electrification in the nation, but the bill failed to dedicate any of its $5.4 billion to transit service, representing a major missed opportunity. 

To build a frequent and reliable transit system, we need to increase transit service by ten percent annually for the next ten years. In the case of RTD, this would restore service to 2019 levels by 2026 and double that level of service by 2033. 

There’s no shortage of potential funding sources to support local and regional transit service. To name a few: 

  • Regional taxes or fees: Currently, transit agencies like RTD are primarily funded through a regional sales tax. The region, or a subset of cities or counties, could decide to increase the sales tax or look to other funding sources like property taxes, income taxes, fuel taxes, real-estate transfer taxes, corporate taxes, parking taxes, business activity taxes, or vehicle registration fees. Sales tax is generally the most common and preferred transit funding source since it’s relatively stable and predictable, but it’s also regressive compared to other funding sources like an income tax. Importantly, Colorado’s TABOR law requires any tax increase to be referred to the ballot and approved by a vote of the people. 
  • State transportation funds: CDOT could direct a larger share of state transportation funds to transit operations. The state’s largest transportation fund is the Highway Users Tax Fund (HUTF), which is supported by a combination of fuel taxes, vehicle registration fees, and the smaller retail delivery and road usage fees created by SB21-260. 60% of HUTF revenue goes to CDOT with the remaining 40% for cities and counties. While it is clear that local HUTF money can be used for transit operations, the state share of the HUTF has historically been considered limited to capital expenditures, although this depends on one’s interpretation of Colorado statute. 
  • General revenues: The Colorado legislature can direct money from the state General Fund to support public transit, as it did with a $30 million general fund transfer to CDOT’s Bustang program in SB21-180. While helpful, General Fund transfers are typically one-time appropriations and vulnerable to shifting politics and budgetary priorities, so aren’t the most reliable source of long-term funding for transit operations. 
  • Regional transportation funds: Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) like DRCOG could allocate a larger share of suballocated federal funding sources like the Surface Transportation Block Grant, Transportation Alternatives, and Carbon Reduction programs to support transit service. If the state were to update its new GHG Planning Standard with more stringent emissions reduction targets, MPOs may be incentivized to shift funding toward transit operations.
  • State enterprise fees: The Colorado legislature has the authority to create new enterprise fees as lawmakers did in SB21-260 to establish the Clean Transit, Clean Fleet, and Community Access enterprises, funding mechanisms for vehicle electrification. However, Colorado voters approved Proposition 117 in 2020, which limits the total amount of money that can be collected by an individual enterprise to $20 million per year for the first five years.

There’s no shortage of options to increase funding for public transit and it may require a combination of the strategies listed above and others to adequately fund transit service. Whatever the path, now is the time to give Coloradans the clean, safe, convenient, and affordable transportation options they deserve.