No new money for low-income discount passes, RTD committee says

A free mall ride on the 16th Street Mall. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)16th street mall; sixteenth street; central business district; downtown; denver; colorado; kevinjbeaty; denverite; cbd;
A free mall ride on the 16th Street Mall. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) 16th street mall; sixteenth street; central business district; downtown; denver; colorado; kevinjbeaty; denverite; cbd;
A free mall ride on the 16th Street Mall. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

RTD’s program to bring discounted passes to low-income riders should not get additional funding this year, an RTD board committee decided Tuesday. Next, the whole board will have to sign off on the decision on May 23.

If they agree, it means that no new nonprofits would be able to join the program that allows them to purchase passes at a 50 percent discount and distribute them to people in need.

To qualify for a pass in the nonprofit program, riders must be at or below 185 percent of the poverty line. That’s $21,978 in earnings for a single adult.

The decision also means groups that already joined the Nonprofit Program will be held to the number of passes that they bought in 2016. Several nonprofits told Denverite that they didn’t feel that was communicated clearly, in some cases causing organizations to quickly run out of discount passes.

If I don’t get those bus passes, I might have to start selling some of my stuff. You shouldn’t have to sell your things just to try to get to work. But you have to do what you have to do in order to keep working.

– Nonprofit Program pass recipient Alfredo Valdez-Martinez

Some members of the committee that made the preliminary decision expressed reservations about capping a program that they themselves pushed during a contentious decision to increase some fares in 2015.

“When we were going through the process of raising fares, one of the things that we pushed and pushed and pushed was going to the nonprofits,” said RTD Board Director Barbara Deadwyler.  “Now we’re putting a hold on it and saying, ‘Well, even though we pushed for this very hard, now we don’t want to increase our budget.’ I think that’s really unfair.”

RTD spokesperson Scott Reed, who presented the update to the board said that the Nonprofit Program itself was an act of goodwill and something that the agency doesn’t have to do.

Reed also said Tuesday that the agency knew that the fare increases would “impact the nonprofit social service sector.”

Fellow Director Tina Francone said that she felt reservations about not providing additional funding. “I pimped this program to a lot of people so my conscience is a little sore right now,” she said Tuesday.

But those views were in the minority. The recommended action, to not increase the program’s funding, passed the committee 8-3.

Some majority voters said that the Nonprofit Program was newly popular because of recent changes that allow nonprofits to sell discounted passes to their clientele, rather than simply giving away the passes. (Nonprofits still can decide to give away passes.)

“Prior to this, the nonprofit agency was putting their own money into the game. Today, they put nothing in the game,” said Director Larry Hoy. “So the not-for-profit organizations are getting discount fares and could potentially recover all of their money.”

Director Natalie Menten said she’d sooner decrease the funding than increase it.

“I have constituents who are barely making it, and they’re not in the low income program. To increase this program is taking more money out of their pocket. Given an inch, somebody wants a mile,” she said.

The legislation that created and governs RTD says, in part: “Public transportation services are provided to assist the transit-dependent and the poor, to relieve congestion and to minimize automotive pollution.”