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Front Range transit leaders hope free rides lead to better air

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Front Range transit leaders hope free rides lead to better air

Jul 28, 2022 | 7:00 am ET
By Chase Woodruff
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Front Range transit leaders hope free rides lead to better air
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An RTD bus heads west on Colfax Avenue at Logan Street in Denver on Dec. 21, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Amid another summer full of ozone alerts along the Front Range, state and local officials will gather at Denver’s Union Station on Thursday to kick off a monthlong initiative to provide free public transit service throughout the Regional Transportation District system.

The “Zero Fare for Better Air” program will run Aug. 1–31, at the peak of Colorado’s summer ozone season, when smog-forming chemicals emitted by vehicles and other pollution sources react with sunlight to form hazardous layers of haze.

“Providing a full month of zero fare is a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate the value transit brings to the communities served and encourage the public to see firsthand how we make lives better through connections,” RTD general manager Debra Johnson said in a statement.

“It’s widely known that new habits can be formed within weeks,” she added. “This month will enable anyone unfamiliar with the RTD system to hop onboard, give the service a try and evaluate whether to modify their travel behavior.”

The fare-free service will apply across RTD’s system, including buses, light rail, commuter rail, paratransit and the FlexRide microtransit service.

The zero-fare program is funded through a state grant program established by lawmakers in the General Assembly earlier this year, part of a broader package of spending on clean-air efforts following a sharp downturn in air quality in the summer of 2021. A nine-county area known as the Denver Metro/North Front Range Nonattainment Area has violated federal health standards for ozone pollution for decades, prompting a series of increasingly strict regulatory measures as required by the Clean Air Act.

Despite Gov. Jared Polis’ initial hopes that the state could fund free transit services for “a period of solid summer months,” the proposal was scaled down after RTD officials pushed for a “more cautious, incremental approach,” citing concerns about the agency’s staffing shortage and safety issues.

“RTD’s Transit Police division will use all available resources to support Zero Fare for Better Air,” RTD officials wrote in a press release last week. “With this being a statewide initiative, RTD has spoken with municipalities and local police agencies within the eight counties it serves, with an expectation that every entity supports this effort and provides resources to ensure its success.”

The agency has promoted the zero-fare initiative with a dedicated marketing campaign across print, digital and broadcast platforms, and will submit a report to the Colorado Energy Office by December on its implementation of the program, including impacts on ridership.

“RTD will be evaluating the impacts and potential benefits of Zero Fare for Better Air by tracking ridership and customer utilization,” RTD spokesperson Laurie Huff wrote in an email. “Additionally, RTD will be working to garner an understanding of the zero fare period through customer and RTD employee surveys, which will provide important feedback from internal and external sources.”

Advocates for public transit say that one month of free service won’t solve Colorado’s air quality and transportation problems on its own, but are hopeful that August can lay the groundwork for an expansion of the program and other transit services, especially as drivers continue to face high gas prices.

“Free buses and trains in August can significantly cut the cost of travel, reduce air pollution during ozone season, and build momentum for big improvements in the frequency, reliability and accessibility of our transit system,” Danny Katz, director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, wrote earlier this month. “Ultimately, the success of this August pilot program will significantly depend on how much we come together as a community and get on board.”