Earlier this year, the Boulder County Board of Commissioners approved a transportation plan that calls for increased bus and rail service in the County, expanded bikeways between cities, road improvements and a host of other projects that would meet the needs of a growing community. The plan is projected to cost about $2.46 billion.
Then the coronavirus came and shut down almost everything, and severely hampered the revenue of Regional Transportation District (RTD), one of the County’s key partners in implementing its improvements.
The impacts of the coronavirus are likely to be long-lasting for a variety of industries. And though it’s too soon to say how transportation service and capital projects will change because of the pandemic, RTD and Boulder County are adapting on the fly to a new set of circumstances.
“We’re anticipating severe reductions not only in fare revenue, but a lot of our budget [comes from] sales and use tax,” says Marta Sipeki, RTD senior manager of public relations and engagement. “Since people aren’t out and about shopping, we’re going to take a big hit.”
In response to a 70% ridership reduction since the start of the pandemic, RTD has shifted almost all buses to limited weekend schedules, and stopped service entirely on other lines.
“We have a lot of buses that are only carrying 6-8 people,” Sipeki says.
RTD waived fare collection, which equates to a loss of $12 million per month. Loss in revenue from sales and use tax will be disclosed on May 1.
The change in schedule is likely to last until September, though there is concern from RTD’s partner organizations that the reduced schedules could stay in effect even longer. Still, Sipeki says RTD can add more buses once people feel comfortable riding public transit again and businesses reopen.
“Once the stay-at-home orders are lifted and we get more people riding transit, we’re going to start adding service back, while still being very cognizant that people can keep their distance from other passengers,” Sipeki says.
RTD did receive about $232 million in funding from the federal CARES Act, but those funds need to be spent on COVID-19-related expenses (personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and technology, salaries and operating costs) and it must be spent on a reimbursement basis. Whatever RTD loses in revenue from now on will factor into how able it is to partner with local entities like Boulder County for necessary capital improvements.
Kathleen Bracke, Boulder County deputy director of transportation planning, says the County can still rely on its approved Transportation Master Plan (TMP) for future projects, even if the funding time line has to be extended to compensate for the losses from its partner agencies.
“We have been modifying some of the work we’re doing but continuing to do more work on our projects,” Bracke says. “I think that’s the beauty and importance of having a plan in place. … [The TMP] does give us a road map to the future and the plan did acknowledge how we’re going to travel in the short term and long term is changing over time. The change happening in front of us — though it is happening at a quicker pace than we might have had in mind.”
Sipeki says “it’s hard to say” how funding deficits now might affect the agency’s ability to fund capital projects in the future — the Boulder County TMP has a rough time line of 20 years to implement its projects.
“It all depends on how long it’s going to take to recover financially,” Sipeki says. “It all depends on the economy. It all depends on how the sales and use tax rebounds.”
“We recognize the funding may need to stretch out over a longer period of time,” Bracke adds. “This is a time to emphasize the importance of partnerships. There’s not one agency that can carry these partnerships alone.”
Too, the County is having conversations about how social distancing and behavior changes might impact projects. For instance, do trails and connections need to be greater than six-feet-wide now to accommodate safe passing distance?
“Obviously the department is going to be looking at projects in the new light of social distancing and the reality of that,” says Richard Hackett, communications specialist for the County Planning and Permitting Department, a new amalgamation of the County’s land use and transportation departments. In fact, Hackett says, the recent merging of those departments was fortuitously timed before the coronavirus, as the County is now “better positioned to respond to the changes needed” to transportation issues.
There have been murmurs, from the City of Boulder at least, that bus service would be brought under local control and taken out of RTD’s hands — the City has written that it is concerned about RTD’s ability to serve the Boulder community. RTD’s funding challenges may or may not factor into those decisions, but change was afoot anyway. The Reimagine RTD program launched in September, bringing together stakeholders like riders, municipalities and transit authorities to form a vision of the agency’s services, which could ultimately include big changes — the coronavirus simply adds a new wrinkle to those discussions.
Ultimately, the coronavirus may muddy the plans (and funding) local agencies have laid out. But Stacey Proctor with the County Planning and Permitting Department says this is a time to see how society changes, recognize the benefits of reduced stress on the transportation system and come out better for it on the other side.
“We’re trying to look and see how can we learn the lesson?” Proctor says. “People are realizing a lot more people can work from home than we thought, can we continue to encourage that, not only for the reasons of reducing the spread of COVID-19, but the other benefits of reducing air pollution and road congestion?”