COVID-19’s Fiscal Impacts on Transportation

While many in our industry are thrilled to see few vehicles traveling while social distancing is in full force, reduced travel demand means lower revenue being generated through the gas tax, which is the primary way transportation funding is generated. The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) estimates a revenue shortfall of nearly $250 million over the next three years due to COVID-19.

This plummet in funding for CDOT is triggering delays and potential elimination of construction projects that were recently identified in a 10-year project pipeline. CDOT Executive Director, Shoshana Lew, presented an overview of CDOT budget gaps and how it impacts transportation at a virtual meeting last week. See the full presentation here.

The downturn in gas tax revenue due to COVID-19 only acerbates the existing long-term, sustainable funding source for transportation that has been a major problem for Colorado for years. Previous projections anticipated a $9 billion funding gap in statewide needs and statewide ballot issues in 2018 and 2019 to fund transportation have failed to meet the approval of voters.

Prior to the suspension of the 2020 legislative session, conversations were underway to consider potential new funding for transportation, including expanding legislation to form Regional Transportation Authorities, charging fees to Transportation Network Companies and other businesses whose business services benefit from transportation, and considering an increase in the state’s gas tax.

Due to the deficit of the state’s budget, these conversations will likely head another direction when the legislature resumes.

While the funding cuts are a significant setback to statewide transportation projects, we’ll continue to focus our efforts on exploring new partnerships to fund transportation and educating and empowering our community members to pursue sustainable modes of commuting.

Living Laboratory: What Can We Learn from COVID-19 to Improve Commuting and Transportation?

The COVID-19 pandemic threw us all into a living laboratory that is greatly affecting our lives and our physical world. As movement continues to be restricted, the environmental impacts of not as many workers commuting to their office are hard to ignore.

We’re keeping an eye on some of the positive implications, including improved air quality, reduced traffic congestion, and an increase in telework, walking and bicycling, and asking ourselves two key questions:

  1. What should we be paying attention to in the short-term to support long-term decisions?
  2. How will the COVID-19 impact the long-term transportation future?

Short-Term Transportation Benefits of COVID-19

Since we were thrown into teleworking as a means to continue many business operations while social distancing, we experienced the rush to equip ourselves with the technology needed to work effectively from home.  We also had to quickly educate ourselves to the tech resources that exist so that we could continue to meet with our teams and external customers, members, etc.  Starting the week of March 11 was a very disruptive time for many of us, and we had to adapt quickly.  The benefits to travel demand and our air quality are staggering. We’ve seen:

It’s been exciting to see how cities like Denver are piloting the use of closed streets to provide more space for walking and bicycling.  Denver is now third in the country for miles of park roads and city streets (16.1 miles) closed to cars and open for bicyclists and pedestrians to spread out as they travel or to get outside for exercise and fresh air. Not only is Denver third in the U.S., but the city is leading the state of Colorado. We hope to see other Colorado communities follow suit soon!

This virus has been very disruptive to the transportation sector in far reaching and global ways; many of which we haven’t even considered yet, nor do we know if there will be lasting effect, specifically to our public transit system and tolled infrastructure such as the US 36 Express Lanes.

We learned in our recent webinar that people are becoming more open to exploring commute options to driving solo.

What Does This Mean for the Future of Commuting?

This time also offers us a unique once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-imagine the transportation system and move it towards a more resilient, equitable and seamless experience.  Much of our road infrastructure is designed for the two peaks-one in the morning and one in the evening albeit at a great cost. Parking also takes up most of land of most suburban office developments. By not having to travel reduces peak demand and supply of expensive new roadway and transit capacity freeing up space for everyone else that needs steady all-hours access. It also reduces the need for so much parking. This is like flattening the curve for transportation supply and demand capacity.

Now a few weeks in, it seems that the office is not as critical as we thought for managing staff and existing client work. Managers and teams are starting to see how these measures can be better for everyone, including the company. For families with kids at home who are conducting online school or whose childcare has closed, this poses another set of challenges to juggling teleworking and family needs.

Our economy is, and will take a huge hit and it will be tempting to go back to the status quo transportation system. However, we can and should use this time to think about how we got here, what no longer works, and ask how might we re-organize our transportation system so that it is more resilient, seamless and works for everyone, including our planet.

RTD Service and Safety Changes in the Northwest Metro Region

Earlier this week, we welcomed RTD Directors Lynn Guissinger and Judy Lubow, and RTD Lead Service Planner Nataly Handlos, to our second COVID-19 webinar to discuss recent safety changes and the upcoming 40% service reduction (effective Sunday, April 19) on RTD public transit.

Five weeks ago, the world was very different for RTD. They were struggling to hire drivers, looking at modest service changes, and having what now seem like minor budget issues. Today, we’re all living through a worldwide experiment in commuting as the pandemic hits transit and local governments.

Ridership by the Numbers

Prior to COVID-19, RTD carried approximately 350,000 people per day (prior to March 12) and now carries approximately 100,000 people per day – primarily essential service workers dependent on public transit to get to and from work.

Most of the ridership today is local routes:

  • Flatiron Flyer: carried 12,000 people on March 11 and 2,000 people on April 8.
  • Light rail: carried 103,000 people on March 11 and 27,000 people on April 8.
  • Commuter rail: carrying 40% of traditional ridership.
  • Local service: carrying about 179,000 on March 11 and 87,000 people on April 8.

The bulk of RTD’s revenue comes for sales and use tax from fares and is taking a huge hit from the decrease in ridership. They are working hard to adjust their operations to support both revenue generation and its ridership.

COVID-19 Service Plan

The reduced service plan goes into effect on Sunday, April 19 – approximately 40% less service than traditionally offered. Most services will be running on a Saturday schedule with some adding additional morning and evening trips.

The reduction in service is in response to a significant decrease in ridership, and reduced service levels will remain in effect until further notice. RTD will continue to evaluate ridership and service as demand warrants.

Northwest Area Impacts

Most of the routes in our local region will operate Monday-Friday on the current Saturday service level and service span schedules. Some routes will have additional trips or operate earlier/later than typical Saturday service levels and spans.

We’ve highlighted routes in the northwest metro region here on our COVID-19 resource page and you can find information all routes here.

FlexRide and Access-a-Ride

The RTD team quickly put a plan into action to make sure their Access-a-Ride customers – mostly elderly and those with disabilities – would be able to get groceries delivered. They’ve served approximately 7% of those customers with deliveries – thank you!

All subscription-reserved trips are suspended as of Sunday, April 19 and reservations will be treated on a first-come, first-served basis. To book a trip, customers may call 303-292-6560. Get all the details here.

Keeping Employees and Customers Safe

In order to protect the health of RTD staff and the public, RTD is pursuing certain health precautions during COVID-19. These precautions are a moving target and change quickly, so please visit the RTD website for the most current information.

  • Providing personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, gloves, sanitizing wipes, and hand sanitizers as they become available.
  • Rear-door boarding and suspension of fares implemented.
  • Area behind the operators and wheelchair area roped off.
  • Minimizing number of riders on buses and trains – approx. 15 passengers per bus; 20 on larger buses; 30 on trains.
  • If necessary, buses will bypass stops and call for backup if they do not believe social distancing (6-foot spacing) can be maintained.
  • Adding more buses on most popular routes; staging buses in those areas as available; using additional train cars on popular lines.
  • Transit police enforcing Customer Code of Conduct, which prohibits sleeping on vehicles and requires deboarding at end of line or route.

Partners in Safety

This issue is very important to RTD. It’s not solely RTD’s responsibility to keep the public safe, but it’s every rider’s responsibility to keep themselves safe.

  • Passengers should only take essential trips, wear masks while riding transit.
  • Practice proper hand-washing hygiene and coughing and sneezing etiquette.
  • Don’t board a vehicle if it appears to be full; another bus isn’t far behind.
  • Social distancing is everyone’s responsibility.
  • Public encouraged to use good judgement.

Ongoing RTD Communications and Outreach

RTD is placing prominent, proactive, and timely info on RTD website and temporary signage on all RTD vehicles and facilities in English and Spanish. Daily email updates are being shared with Board members and all RTD staff including daily recorded employee message, and periodic email updates are distributed to customers, elected officials and key stakeholders.

Federal Stimulus Package – CARES Act

Some good news! $232 million is the Denver metro area’s share of a $25 billion relief package for US public transit systems authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress last month.

Ongoing Challenges

  • Continued shortage of masks and some cleaning supplies
  • Riders not respecting social distancing
  • Some people riding the system without deboarding

Watch or listen to the replay here to hear the Q&A session, including EcoPass reimbursements, 16th Street shuttle use, an update on the Northwest Rail Line, and the search for a General Manager.

Thank you to RTD for joining us to discuss these important changes to our region!

What the Community Needs of Transportation During COVID-19

Commuting Solutions is exploring evolving programs and services to best support our community today, during the transition back to workplaces, and in the future.

To learn about what our members and community are experiencing and observing around commuting and transportation during COVID-19, Commuting Solutions hosted our first webinar last week! You can watch the replay here. A few highlights of our discussion include:

Teleworking

As shelter in place orders continue, telework is becoming more acceptable across industries. Local organizations are both creating and updating policies to allow and encourage telework. Employers are looking for tips and tricks on how to thrive and manage team through telework and even sharing mental health suggestions and resources for their employees. Several attendees expressed concern that a possible long-term increase in telework could affect public transit and tolled roadway facilities in the Denver metro region.

Guidance on How to Return to the Workplace

Organizations are also looking for guidance on how to return to workplaces. A few ideas companies are considering:

  • Encouraging those who can telework to continue part-time during and after the transition
  • Establishing certain days of the week for employees to come into the office for in person meetings
  • Moving to 50% of employees in the office at a time
  • Encouraging telework and virtual meetings to minimize physical commutes

The Future of Commuting

The biggest question on people’s minds is how commuting may be permanently altered after the quarantine is over:

  • How might the demand for public transit be altered?
  • What are the exposure and transmission risks on public transit?
  • How can we work to promote biking or walking to school and work?
  • Will more people look to vanpooling and carpooling when its time to transition back?
  • As cities pilot closing streets for vehicles to open the space for walking, biking, etc. , should can we encourage this long-term?

What’s Next?

Commuting Solutions will continue to talk to our members and community to make sure we’re providing timely and useful services during this time.

Click here to watch replays of our recent COVID-19 webinars. We’ll be scheduling more webinars this spring/summer.

A Note From Us During the COVID-19 Pandemic

At Commuting Solutions we’ve taken several steps to make certain our staff, clients and partners remain healthy as we comply with federalstate, regional, and local recommendations for social distancing and health recommendations. We’re committed to doing our part to minimize the spread of the virus. Here’s how we’re managing right now.

Commuting Solutions operations continue with all staff working from home. To contact our team, email is the most efficient way to reach us.

Audrey DeBarros, Executive Director:
audrey@commutingsolutions.org

Julie Esterline, Administrative Assistant:
julie@commutingsolutions.org 

Emily Buzek, Programs & Outreach Specialist:
emily@commutingsolutions.org

Heather Opland, Membership & Events Coordinator: 
heather@commutingsolutions.org

Until further notice, all Commuting Solutions-hosted meetings will go virtual, or have a significant virtual component. Keep an eye on email invitations and our website for details related to specific meetings.

We’ll still be in communication as regularly scheduled, and you’ll see some resourceful and commuter-friendly communications from us as we know that everyone will be plugged in and eager to connect and engage digitally.

In the meantime, we remain committed to our mission, to connect people to places in the northwest metro region today and for the future. We’ll do this in any way we can while following the continually evolving guidelines from our local, state and national leadership, so please let us know how we can help.

Thank you for staying in touch with us. You can reach me personally by replying to this email, and of course stay connected via Facebook and LinkedIn.

Sincerely,

Audrey DeBarros
Executive Director