CDOT to RTD: Restore Boulder and Longmont buses or lose $34M

The Colorado Department of Transportation has delivered an ultimatum to RTD: Restore key Boulder and Longmont commuter bus routes that run along U.S. 36 — including two Flatiron Flyer lines — or lose out on a chunk of the federal pandemic relief money the agency is counting on.

At stake is $34.2 million that is the portion of transit aid money set aside for Boulder County communities under the American Rescue Plan, approved by Congress earlier this year. That federal money for outlying areas of metro Denver normally is funneled to the Regional Transportation District through CDOT.

But in an unusual move, CDOT executive director Shoshana Lew wrote in a letter sent Tuesday that she would sign off on the transfer only if the agency agreed to restore the bus routes, which have been among those suspended during the pandemic. The letter, addressed to RTD general manager and CEO Debra Johnson, gives RTD until Friday to accept CDOT’s conditions.

RTD spokeswoman Marta Sipeki confirmed that Johnson received Lew’s letter but said the agency had no comment Wednesday.

A complication for CDOT’s stand is that the Federal Transit Administration told Lew in a recent letter that CDOT must distribute the money by Oct. 31 to RTD or another transit provider. Failure to do so could harm several Colorado transit agencies’ competitiveness if they apply for a new $2.2 billion pandemic assistance program this fall, the FTA told CDOT.

The money that CDOT is holding onto accounts for about 10% of RTD’s combined $338 million in allocations under the American Rescue Plan.

All told, including earlier federal COVID aid bills, RTD has been approved for $773 million in pandemic assistance since last year. It’s depending on the money to buttress its budget for several years amid still-lagging ridership, especially among commuters.

Lew’s letter is the latest move by Gov. Jared Polis’ administration and Boulder County leaders to put pressure on RTD to provide more service to the area. Earlier this year, Polis, who lives in Boulder, pushed RTD to finish a costly 35-mile extension of its B-Line commuter rail line to Boulder and Longmont as promised under the 2004 FasTracks metro transit expansion package approved by voters. RTD can’t afford the estimated $1.5 billion price tag but agreed to study ways to provide limited service.

In the case of the suspended bus routes, Lew pointed out that CDOT and RTD spent hundreds of millions of dollars to expand U.S. 36 in the last decade.

“The state invested roughly half a billion dollars in modernizing U.S. 36 with a managed lane that was specifically designed to incorporate the bus rapid transit that the Flatiron Flyer express routes provided,” Lew wrote. “These rapidly became amongst the most successful routes in the region…”

Those overlapping routes had counted about 13,000 boardings per day before the pandemic. Now the Flatiron Flyer’s FF1 — the only regular route still running — has just 2,000 a day, said Jessie Carter, the agency’s manager of service planning and scheduling, during an RTD board meeting this week.

The routes that Lew has called on RTD to restore are the FF2 and FF4, which operate between Boulder and stations in downtown Denver; and the LX1 and LX2, which are express routes between Longmont and downtown Denver. Besides the FF1, RTD currently runs limited service on two other Flyer routes and operates four weekday buses on its non-express Route LD1 between Longmont and Denver.

Carter spoke Tuesday night during an RTD board discussion about upcoming service changes. Director Lynn Guissinger, whose District O includes much of Boulder County, said she’d received repeated requests to restore more Flatiron Flyer service.

RTD officials responded that they have prioritized other routes for restoration because of the Flyers’ high operating costs, insufficient demand among downtown commuters and RTD’s ongoing operator shortage, among other factors.

RTD’s labor shortage is part of a larger problem affecting private and public employers — including CDOT’s maintenance and snow removal staff.

Another round of service restorations last month brought RTD’s service level up to about 70% of pre-pandemic levels, but officials have said staffing is getting tight.

The flashpoint over the Boulder County routes also highlights RTD’s long-running tension between equity and commuter-heavy suburban service.

Carter said other parts of metro Denver still lack any service, and some routes that have higher ridership than the Flyer routes currently need expansion because they serve more people who are low-income or are from communities that rely more heavily on RTD service.

“My team is anxious to get back to providing a higher level of service and bringing back the routes that we are accustomed to seeing a high ridership on,” he said. “That includes the U.S. 36 corridor, but it also includes other parts of the district.”

But Guissinger said failing to restore the Flyer routes, even on a limited basis during rush hours, made RTD less appealing to commuters.

“I’m trying to think about how we can make something work, because it’s clearly — we’re losing riders to all this,” she said.

Lew echoed that point in her letter, writing that she was withholding the relief money because the Boulder and Longmont routes “are essential to the mobility of Coloradans in the urbanized areas for which these federal (transit formula) funds were explicitly provided.”

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