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Bus strike? Go ahead, make our day

Opinion Editorial
March 2, 2003

By Jon Caldara, For the Boulder Daily Camera

The Regional Transportation District, claiming it’s out of cash, is cutting bus service throughout the district. Of course, RTD wouldn’t cut service unless it was a last resort. Passengers are RTD’s most valued assets.

But apparently not valued enough to stop RTD from paying high-priced consultants instead of continuing service. As reported by The Denver Post, RTD OK’d a price hike of nearly 40 percent for a study on whether the old Denver Union Terminal should become a regional transit hub.

Like more and more “studies,” this one is not a technical evaluation, but a political one. The consultants want another $1.6 million to continue their work in “public participation.” And RTD wants to give it to them.
Did I mention RTD is cutting bus routes?

Also interesting is the fact that the study doesn’t mean much unless RTD can convince voters to raise their tax 67 percent, from a 0.6-percent sales tax to 1 percent, for trolley projects that might use Union Station as a hub. Talk about putting the trolley in front of the horse.

Since RTD already bought Union Station, what are the chances their multi-million-dollar study is going to say it shouldn’t be used?

So how much does “public participation” border on electioneering? RTD likes spending your tax money on PR campaigns to promote its 67-percent tax increase. Of course they call it public outreach.

Remember the radio ads, the newspaper ads and the direct mail blitz, asking you to come to meetings to learn about their-tax increase plan, “Fastrack”? Was it really “public participation” or an awareness campaign?

There was even a separate RTD image campaign in print and on the air, “RTD, On the Move for You.” I guess it was to persuade you not to use the other governmental transit monopoly.

All this “public outreach” likely means little to those folks who just had their bus routes cut.

Studies and image advertising are still small potatoes compared to the savings RTD could have by changing the way it runs its buses. In 1988, former Gov. Roy Romer signed a bill that required RTD to competitively contract 20 percent of its service to private companies. In the same way government contracts out many services from lawyers to landscape crews, RTD was mandated to contract out bus service.

Contracted routes are still RTD routes. RTD designs them, makes the timetables, owns the buses, and even dictates what the drivers will wear. The lowest-priced qualified provider wins the job.

According to RTD’s own numbers the savings from contracting in the first 10 years alone was about $100 million, or around 40 percent. In fact, that money was used to build their first trolley line.

And before you start thinking that the contracted service is somehow inferior to the in-house service, think again. RTD keeps pretty good stats so they can penalize the private operators if they don’t perform to the terms of their contract. Buses are tracked by GPS, and, guess what, on-time performance, delays, breakdowns are all about the same and sometimes better from the privates.

This is hardly a new way of delivering transit services. Since 1985, all of London’s 6,000-plus buses have been contracted out. The result has been a cost savings of nearly 50 percent, service miles provided by London transit increased by 39 percent, and ridership increased by 21 percent.

Contracting transit is the norm in most countries throughout Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Cities like Las Vegas, San Diego, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and others do business this way. If fact, if you are a fan of Boulder’s “Hop” bus service, thank contracting. That’s how the city did it.

Given all this cost savings, you’d think RTD would contract out all its service instead of cutting routes or using tax money to pimp for 67-percent a tax increases. But no. Unlike other agencies, they have increased contracting only when forced to by the state Legislature.

But they have a remarkable opportunity to change that right now. Their in-house union is, as of this writing, threatening a strike. By the way, during the last strike, in the ’70s, traffic levels on the streets actually decreased. Thanks to the current contracted service, if there is a strike now, about a third of the service will not be affected.

With just the smallest bit of backbone, the RTD board could contract out the rest of its service right now and use the savings to restore bus routes, increase service, build trolley lines, or, God forbid, use the money for road improvements.

Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute in Golden. He lives in Boulder.