RTD is proposing to bring back the FF2 express bus to Denver due to high demand. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

In response to financial constraints and changes in travel habits due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Regional Transportation District (RTD) is working on how to overhaul its mass transportation services for the Denver-Aurora-Boulder Combined Statistical Area. 

The transit agency is soliciting feedback from the public on its proposed System Optimization Plan (SOP), which seeks to consolidate, shorten or discontinue many bus routes by 2027. It’s part of the agency’s Reimagine RTD initiative, a two-year process to include the public in developing its long-term vision for the agency and the services it provides. Feedback will be accepted through Feb. 9, and RTD’s Board of Directors plans to formally adopt the plan in March.

The current SOP would reduce total bus service hours to 85% of pre-Covid levels by 2027. RTD’s rail lines would not be reduced at all under the plan.

The following routes serving Boulder County will return from their pandemic pause:

  • Flatiron Flyer – Route FF2: Downtown Boulder Station/Union Station (Express)
  • Flatiron Flyer – Route FF4: Boulder Junction/Civic Center Station
  • Route GS: Golden/Boulder

However, if the SOP is adopted as it currently stands, some routes will be discontinued. These include Route FF6 on the Flatiron Flyer, connecting Boulder Junction and Union Station, along with Route AB2, which connects Boulder Junction to the Denver International Airport. Neither route is currently operating due to Covid-19.

Other discontinued lines include:

  • Route J (Longmont/East Boulder/CU)  
  • Route Y (Lyons/Boulder)
  • Route 209 (CU/Thunderbird/Mohawk) 
  • Route 236 (Boulder Junction/Table Mesa Park-and-Ride) 

Reduced rider demand is one of the reasons for discontinuing routes, according to the SOP.

The following routes would remain in place but with sections removed:

  • The segment of the JUMP route connecting Boulder to Erie would be replaced by an expansion to Route 225. 
  • On-demand service would replace the segment of Route 205 (Boulder/Gunbarrel) running to and from Heatherwood (Lookout Road/75th Street). 
  • Route 206 would lose its segment between Boulder Junction to Fairview High School, with no replacement. 

A few routes would actually expand to compensate for the ones removed in the SOP. 

The BOLT and DASH routes, for example, would offer increased coverage to CU East Campus and Lafayette, respectively. A new route called JUMP X would offer express service between Boulder and Lafayette.

Regional Transportation District (RTD) is seeking public comment on its System Optimization Plan (SOP), which would reduce service hours to 85% of pre-Covid levels, by Feb. 9. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

Financial constraints, pandemic lessons and climate change goals

Total annual bus boardings across the RTD system decreased from 59.7 million in 2019 to 32.9 million in 2020, the first year affected by Covid-19 disruptions. 

Meanwhile, RTD’s total operating budget dropped from $740 million in 2020 to $629 million in 2021.

Matt Frommer, senior transportation associate at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP), says he understands the fiscal constraints under which RTD is operating, and the new pandemic reality the agency is trying to address. 

“One of the learnings from the pandemic is that local bus routes in higher-density areas with more transit-dependent riders retained ridership, while the light rail and commuter rail lines were less resilient,” he said. “In lower-density areas, people are more likely to work from home. The SOP right-sizes service for those who still use it and are more dependent on it.”

But Frommer says he’s disappointed with the level of ambition reflected in the proposed service changes. 

“RTD is saying that in 2027 its transit service will be 85% of what it was in 2019. That’s a big step backwards. We’re regressing,” just as we’re emerging from the pandemic, he said. 

“This is exactly the time to say we’re going to increase service, do marketing and get people back on transit.”

Frommer predicts the reduction in transit services will result in more vehicle travel and pollution, clashing sharply with the state’s own climate goals at a time when governments must take decisive action to limit global warming.  

When the Colorado Department of Transportation modeled its new greenhouse gas rule, he said, they found that transit service would have to “significantly expand” — by 6% every year — to hit the state’s 2030 emission targets. That’s a 70% increase over the next eight years, Frommer added. 

“We’re seeing a 15% decrease instead,” he said.

Bill Sirois, an RTD Senior Manager who is leading the SOP process, said the plan is pragmatic given the challenges faced by the agency.

“We’re operating at service levels 30% below where they were in 2019 due to a shortage of bus and rail operators. That’s one challenge. Another challenge is a fairly heavy debt load and a large maintenance backlog,” he said. “What we have with the SOP is what we can realistically do.”

Doug Monroe, RTD’s manager of corridor planning, said the agency used pre-Covid and current ridership data to determine which routes to add, remove or change.

“A big component of the early planning of SOP was using location-based services. We looked at anonymized cellphone data to determine general patterns of where people — not just transit riders — are traveling. Then from there we decide where it makes the most sense to put the bus routes,” he said.

Monroe says Boulder riders won’t see big changes when it comes to the amount of routes offered under the current SOP.

“I know there’s quite a bit of change in how much service is offered on many of those routes,” he said. “That reflects how ridership patterns have changed, especially through the pandemic, and where it looks like they’re heading over the next five years.”

Want to see how your regular bus trip might change, and provide feedback? Check out RTD’s online mapping tool. You can also email or call 303-489-7792 for more information.